Insights from our robotics experts
Source: Prime Movers Lab
Prime Movers Lab Research Fellow Marissa Ramirez de Chanlatte and I hosted a webinar last week that explored all things robotics and automation with Robust.AI CTO and Founder Rodney Brooks, MassRobotics Cofounder and COO Joyce Sidopoulos, and Remedy Robotics Cofounder and CEO David Bell. Here are some of the top takeaways from our conversation.
What recent advances are enabling more advanced robotics? Why now?
- Less expensive chips mean we can put more computing power closer to the perception system (cameras, lidar, sensors).
- Neural models enable us to know more about the world than they could in the past.
- Cloud computing enables us to do some tasks on more powerful computers.
- Sensor costs are decreasing so we can use more of them (or build less expensive robots).
What is the role of robotics in the labor force?
There are huge labor shortages across many industries in the US. The Covid pandemic and supply chain challenges highlighted the critical role some of these unfilled jobs play in maintaining our economic system. Automation and robotics can help make our existing labor more productive, alleviating some of the burdens of unfilled jobs.
While labor supply constraints affect many industries, increasing demand is also a factor. Surgeons concentrate in cities, so people in rural areas need access to care.
Quick stats from our panel:
- 500,000 unfilled fulfillment jobs in the US
- 700,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the US
- India has ~2,000 strokes per day, and only 2 people get procedures
Robots that are being integrated today are augmenting people, not replacing them. One of the remaining challenges is making robots easier for operators to use.
Are people comfortable working with robots?
People anthropomorphize the robots they like. A sure sign of comfort is when people start to dress their robotic helpers.
In medical settings, clinical evidence is a clear red line to demonstrate efficacy. If you don’t get better health outcomes or solve a labor shortage, David pointed out, “There is no point in using robots for the sake of using robots.”
What industries were the first to automate and why?
Car manufacturers have been welding and painting with robots for decades. These use cases relied on precise repetition rather than an understanding of the environment so they were unsafe to operate around humans. Collaborative robots, or cobots, that operate around humans are a more recent development.
Rodney quantified the current state of automation — only 20% of US fulfillment centers have any automation where a conveyor belt counts as automation.
Joyce pointed to healthcare and assistive technologies as one of the next areas she expects to see further automation as populations in many countries get older.
What about humanoid robots?
Many areas of the world have been designed for humans and so a robot that can operate in those environments is a compelling goal for many people. But building them is a major engineering challenge. Our panel pointed to cost as a major barrier to building and deploying humanoids.
Manufacturing at high volume brings costs down and even some of the most advanced robotics companies are still producing at relatively small scales. A significant proportion of founders and engineers in robotics come from academic backgrounds and engineering for cost is a different mindset than researchers typically have.
How will people and robots interact?
This is an area of ongoing research as more robots enter our environment.
Rodney shared stories of soldiers naming and growing attached to bomb disposal robots and to Roombas. We form attachments to objects in our environment. Cloud computing enables different sorts of collaboration where every robot can know something you taught one robot.
But there is still progress to be made. Robots generally don’t have “manners”. If you cross paths with a robot it, typically it will wait for you to get out of the way — it won’t provide an option to get out of your way. And if someone moves the robot, it needs to be reset in order to know where it is in the environment.
People naturally want to work in higher-level professions. People do not want to do dull, dirty, and dangerous work and robotics provides a roadmap to automate the jobs we would rather not do.
Rodney Brooks, CTO and Founder at Robust.AI, Founder at Rethink Robotics, iRobot, Lucid Inc, Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT, and former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation and agriculture.
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