Robots are expected to take over 16 percent of U.S. jobs—22.7 million jobs—by 2025, according to new research. Perhaps the larger concern is whether or not it’s safe for humans to work alongside robots.

 

Considering recent, rapid progress in robotics and artificial intelligence, it’s important to define robotics. “By ‘robots,’ we mean all forms of automation technologies, including those that conduct physical tasks, intellectual tasks or customer service tasks that mix elements of both physical and intellectual activities, but which constitute a distinct category in the age of the customer,” J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst serving Infrastructure & Operations Professionals at Forrester Research, writes on a Forrester blog.

 

That definition puts the group’s forecast for job loss in context. However, it should be pointed out that Forrester’s research also forecasts advances in automation technologies will create the equivalent of nine percent of today’s jobs in the same timeframe. That’s because physical robots require repair and maintenance, which will necessitate the creation of several job categories. The forecast then is for a net loss of seven percent [9.1 million jobs], which, as Gownder notes, is far fewer than most forecasts, although still a significant job loss number.

 

Despite advances in robotics, it’s still troubling to learn of accidents in which a robot is responsible for a human’s death. For instance, earlier this summer at a Volkswagen plant in Germany, a man was helping to assemble the stationary robot that grabs and configures auto parts when the machine grabbed and pushed him against a metal plate. The man later died from the injuries.

 

That type of accident cats a spotlight on a significant technological challenge. Industrial robots are suited for moving heavy objects, moving at high speeds and performing repetitive and monotonous tasks. On the other hand, they also move blindly. Consequently, if they make contact with a human, it may result in serious injury or death.

 

The solution, some say, is the controlled use of robot-human interaction, known as “collaborative robotics” or “cobotics.” What's different is these robots have sensors and safety features that enable them to detect and even react to nearby humans. Proponents say this allows companies to safely pair machines’ strength and precision with employees’ ability to see, feel and think.

 

One company using cobotics is BMW. In 2013 the company installed robots, made by Denmark’s Universal Robots, in its South Carolina factory to help human workers insulate and water-seal car doors, a BloombergBusiness article reports. The robot spreads and glues material down while a human worker holds the material in place. Without the robot, it’s a physically uncomfortable task that leads to worker wrist injuries.

 

“We’re interested in ergonomics and safety,” Rich Morris, who heads up BMW’s assembly and logistics, says in the article. “A robot can do repetitive tasks like pushing or pulling without getting injured and having to come off the assembly line.”

 

What’s interesting is that if a human gets too close to the machine, first it tells them they’re getting too close, then it stops running, Morris says.

 

Some robots “learn” tasks from human workers. For example, Baxter, from Rethink Robotics, has two arms and an animated face on a head-like screen. “He,” as Baxter is known, can be taught to carry out tasks through demonstration: The human manipulates Baxter’s arms into a sequence of positions once, and the machine will then repeat the action, the Bloomberg article notes. Baxter’s on-screen facial expressions help communicate to nearby humans what the machine is focused on and when it’s confused by something unexpected.

 

There’s no doubt that robots can do many tasks faster and more efficiently than humans. The use of cobotics would seem to be the next step in industrial automation, and can offer many advantages—along with human worker safety.

 

What are your thoughts on the use of cobotics? How do you envision them being used throughout the supply chain?