How Robots Could Change the Way We Work – Podcast
Robots and 3D-printed houses were topics of discussion on the latest episode of Standards Impact, the official podcast of ASTM International. Host Dave Walsh, editor in chief of ASTM’s flagship publication, Standardization News, spoke with two experts about the field of advanced manufacturing: Sam Rubin, co-founder and senior sustainability advisor at Mighty Buildings, and Adam Norton, associate director of the NERVE Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The group talked about the way that contemporary innovations like additive manufacturing and robotics are reshaping industries across the globe. They also broached some of the big questions facing these technologies, asking whether in the future we should expect Star Trek replicators and Isaac Asimov’s human-replacing robots.
Read an excerpt from their discussion and listen to the full episode here or below.
Standards Impact, Episode 6 - "Exploring Advanced Manufacturing"
Adam Norton: We’re starting to see [robots] open up more and more into more diverse environments, more challenging environments. The intent with all of these systems, at least from my perspective, has never been to replace people in that automation, but really to enhance what they're able to do. Humans are really good at making decisions, And humans are also really good at repeated, very laborious, boring tasks, but they're better suited to using their intelligence. So if we can take those dull, dirty, dangerous—those are the three Ds—out of human performance and automate them so that we can have humans doing more high-impact tasks and also just reducing things like some of the physical strain that occurs, fatigue, you know, all those other impacts. That's really where those A-UGVs and other types of robotics and automation are seeing a real impact.
Sam Rubin: I'm hoping you don't mind me jumping in here, Dave. Adam, have you ever come across the Buckminster Fuller quote from back in the ’50s around this? What you were saying about, the role of robots isn't to replace humans. It's really allowed them to do more. There is a key role for humans. Back in the ’50s, Buckminster Fuller talked about how we have technology such that one person could do the job of 10,000, and that we should be using that technology to free others up to do the things that further humanity. That’s an approach that we really need to take because otherwise, we're going to be using robots, but we're going to still have people doing dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs.
Norton: What's interesting though, is that… Now I'm going to get on my soapbox about robotics versus automation – but this is an important difference that isn't generally agreed upon – it's just kind of my perspective on it: Traditional automation has been automation, where you're doing the same thing over and over. If there's any sort of variance in there, it's very minor and local, it's going to move these objects from this plate, but we know they're going to be in a general area, so we build in some kind of margin of error for its performance.
The advent of robotics with automation is that robotics involves sensors. They involve autonomy. They can adhere to variance and changes like a human could—not necessarily in the strategic decision-making aspect of it, but they can be more flexible and intelligent than traditional automation. But what I'm not seeing is enough advances in robotics really taking advantage of this fact.
But it's something I've been trying to push more and more, both in our standards work [with] ASTM, and otherwise in research. There's so much more that robotics can be doing in this space to even further free up people to be able to adhere to multiple different types of jobs to not just use them for this one task and then require hundreds of hours of reconfiguration or whatever it be. And that's where I think we're going to see a lot of this go to even further unlock their potential.
Dave Walsh: That leads to the follow-up question I had in my mind. Because you mentioned autonomous versus unmanned. There's a difference. And I think a lot of people picture an Asimov novel. There's going to be a robot there walking around looking like us and doing tasks in a factory. But that may be the aspiration, like you just said, to have a highly intelligent sort of robot working on an assembly line. But the reality is sort of these boxy unmanned ground vehicles that are incredibly useful, and/or maybe the traditional arm over the assembly line as we've seen in robotics videos. But that's more of the reality than the Asimov novel at this point.
Norton: The issue is with the word autonomous in that none of the systems that we are using today—and really that I envision for the future—are ever going to be truly autonomous, meaning 100 percent operating on their own. There's always a human in the loop. The question is how frequent the human is in the loop and what level of controller input do they have, when you look at the spectrum from teleoperated systems like the robots that are used by first responders where they're controlling, in most cases, every single joint being used out in the field for disaster response, up to an automatic ground vehicle that is moving throughout an environment. There's still a human somewhere telling that system at one point in time where to go, ultimately probably approving how to get there and the various rules that it's going to abide by for staying this distance away from obstacles, for not exceeding this speed for safety regulations, et cetera. So even as you get into systems to become more and more capable and they can have more autonomy, being truly autonomous in what Asimov would probably use as the definition of the word is very, very unlikely.
That's because the human decision-making in the brain, in my opinion, is too complex to really spend the amount of energy it would require to have a system be that autonomous. Because I don't think it really works out in the long run for cost/benefit. But if you can have them performing those other tasks where a human can command them strategically by whatever other criteria, that's where they really show their value.