After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

How ‘Pushy’ Should Robots Be Allowed to Be?

Posted on October 7, 2014
Filed Under Technology | Leave a Comment

First there was concern over whether robots would replace human workers to such an extent that the economy might collapse under mass unemployment. (At least we think we remember such discussions – Google could probably help refresh us.) Now, though, robotics is an established industrial science, more robots are coming, and the question has become, according to the MIT Technology Review, “Should Industrial Robots Be Able to Hurt Their Human Coworkers?”

Hurt them, us? Picture a vengeful robot on a factory floor who thinks it got too much, or too little, oil, or programming or whatever. Should it be able to zing the engineer it deems responsible with a conk or two? Well, that’s not exactly the question. It’s more like what the  U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the International Standards Organization (ISO) will tolerate in regulations being applied to the use of  “collaborative robots” that work along with humans. Sort of like the early (or later) days of nuclear power, we imagine, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

yumi_logo_1203x615A  conference was held last week on collaborative robots by the Robotics Industry Association (there was a continental breakfast and, to the best of our knowledge, no robots attended) at which it was noted that, so far, robots have been used mostly by small manufacturers where OSHA assumes they will operate only where humans aren’t nearby. (Talk about a caste system!) “We live a happy life until we reached the big companies,” says Esben Ostergaard, chief technology officer at Universal Robots, a Danish company, “– then we got all these problems about standards.”

Like going, in a way, from the Saxton Nuclear Experimental Corp. to Three Mile Island.

“For collaborative robots to really change manufacturing, and earn significant profits” says the MIT Review, “they must be embraced by large companies, for whom safety certification is crucial.” So, should a robot actually be allowed to hurt a human worker who may be its benchmate. Say, a bruise a day. Well, “that would clearly be intolerable,” said Björn Matthias, a member of the group helping to write the ISO standard, but maybe they could hurt a human sometimes. (Hold it! the NRC  would likely say, although bruises and radiation exposure aren’t really comparable.)

So how are collaborative robots and humans really going to be able to get along? How are they going to be able to collaborate big time? The question is complicated by the public’s perception of robots, which equates them with science fiction, the MIT Review notes. So here we have another junction at which humans with their actually limited ability to conceptualize new settings, without enough time and experience,  are currently at something of a standoff with their robot partners. But people said airplanes would fall out of the sky, too, notes a manager quoted by MIT. It gets back, once again, to the acceptable level of risk in a new setting. We’re sure we’ll be having safely deployed robot partners sometime in the pretty near future. – Doug Bedell 


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