Rise of the cobots: the next step in human/robot collaboration

Increasing digitalization and automation has led some to worry that humans will soon be replaced by robots, but is this really the case? We explore whether humans really have anything to fear from machines, and why a collaborative approach could provide the best of both worlds.

The case for robots

For millennia now, humans have been focused on finding ways to make tasks easier, faster, and less tiresome; the Egyptians created mechanical devices to ease repetitive manual tasks in around 3000 B.C, and the earliest modern robots have been present in industrial settings since the late 1950s.

The business case for robots is difficult to deny. They are cost-efficient, with some costing less than the  annual salary of one employee, boosting long-term profitability. They reduce errors, can operate 24/7, and have greater production capacities than even the most dedicated human workers.

For the humans working alongside these robots, however, the advantages and disadvantages are less clear cut. Robot advocates claim that employees will benefit from spending less time on repetitive, manual, or high-risk tasks, while critics say that humans will gradually be devalued and eventually replaced altogether by their automated counterparts.

Are employers right to be worried about machines?

Sci-fi renderings of anthropomorphic machines may be the prevailing image we have of robots today, but technical definitions of what a robot is can vary. Robots are described by the Encyclopedia Britannica as ‘any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort’, while the Robot Institute of America defines them as ‘a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator’.

Combined with horror stories about negatively impacted employees, such as Amazon’s automated firing of workers who weren’t productive enough compared to their robot counterparts, the lack of a unified characterization means it’s little wonder that some people have reservations about robots becoming part of their team.

Even academic opinions differ on what the outcome of a human/robot hybrid workforce will be. US-based researchers concluded that ‘for every robot added per 1,000 workers in the U.S., wages decline by 0.42% and the employment-to-population ratio goes down by 0.2 percentage points’, while another study from France found ‘no evidence to indicate that robots are displacing workers’, and that high and middle-skill professions are positively impacted by the presence of robots. The World Robotics Report 2020 states that there are already some 2.7 million robots working in factories across the world, representing a worldwide increase of 85% since 2014. With robotic prevalence showing no signs of waning, is there a way to achieve the best of both worlds?

Robots: colleagues or colleteral?

According to the Harvard Business Review, the most significant performance improvements happen when humans and machines work together. It follows, then, that debate should now center not on whetherthe robots are coming, but on what happens when they arrive.

One of the biggest challenges in integrating robots to any work environment is how they are viewed by the humans already working there. Ensuring that robots don’t appear threatening or likely to usurp humans must therefore be the priority for any person-centered organization, but some claim that robots should ideally be seen as team members or colleagues.

A well-known example of robot/machine collaboration is the military robot named Boomer. Designed to find and detonate explosives, Boomer was in no way anthropomorphized, looking instead like a small tank or a large lawnmower. The soldiers working alongside Boomer reportedly grew fond of their robotic colleague and even described the machine as having a personality of its own. When Boomer was destroyed in a combat situation, the soldiers gave Boomer a funeral with 21-gun salute and military decorations in recognition of its ‘heroism’ and of the many lives it had saved on the battlefield.  

Cobots - Robots working with humans

In such a high-stakes, life-or-death environment as a military battlefield, it is perhaps easy to understand why soldiers were so quick to embrace a robotic colleague: it was reliable, followed orders to the letter, and most importantly, it took risks so humans didn’t have to. The emotional connection that developed between the soldiers and the robot could be attributed to gratitude, relief, or even a form of respect. Importantly however, despite Boomer’s obvious positive qualities and the affection it garnered, the soldiers always knew that Boomer could never replace them; it was designed to work in sync with humans and to augment their capabilities, not overtake them.

Another example worth considering is that of auto-landing systems on aircraft. Capable of landing aircraft without human intervention, it would be reasonable to assume that some human pilots may feel their futures were in doubt. Research has shown evidence to the contrary: rather than feel undermined, auto-land systems served as a model and motivator for pilots to increase their own skill levels. Pilots’ knowledge that they would be required to manually land an aircraft in the event of auto-land’s failure or malfunction means they can view auto-land as a safety net rather than a threat.

Rise of the cobots

Collaborative robots, known as ‘cobots’, are designed to work alongside humans to augment and enhance performance. Defined by cobot inventors J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin as ‘a device and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a computerized manipulator’, cobots are designed to keep humans at the center of robotic interventions.

Cobot applications can vary significantly, but generally they are used to extend human’s physical capabilities while freeing them to perform more high-value tasks associated with a particular role. For example, a cobot arm could do the heavy lifting required to pick and pack items for delivery in a warehouse, while a human performs complementary tasks requiring dexterity and judgement such as adding personalized notes or tissue paper wrapping.

Automotive manufacturer Hyundai has taken the cobot concept one step further with wearable exoskeleton technology which adapts to the user and location in real-time, enabling human workers to perform their roles with superhuman strength and endurance. The Hyundai robotics team says these wearable robots will ‘create a smart factory without taking human jobs away’.

Given the almost unlimited scope of cobots to augment human capabilities in a wide variety of situations, it’s unsurprising that the cobot market is predicted to expand at a CAGR of 44.5% till 2025, reaching a value of around $1.5 billion by 2026.

For businesses seeking to improve efficiency and increase the value of their daily operations, it’s clear that there are few better performance-boosters than robots. However, given the increasing pressure to retain jobs and reassure employees of their long-term security, cobots may indeed present a solution that works for everyone. As well as freeing employees to perform higher value tasks and removing them from potential risks, cobots achieve the same business benefits as traditional industrial robots. With the cobot market booming for years to come, it’s likely that many employees will soon find themselves sharing a workspace with a non-human colleague.

Find out more about how to create the optimum work environment for your organization with Mantu’s Talent Solutions practice at Mantu.com.

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