A Life Less Analog, Technology

Cobots at work: How robots will help humans survive

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I love robots. That’s been the case from the time I was a kid watching Voltes V, Mazinger Z, and other Japanese super robot cartoons (so long ago that we didn’t even call them anime yet). So it was pretty awesome to attend the first ever “Meet the Cobot Leaders” session in Asia Pacific organized by Universal Robots, the global leader in collaborative robots (cobots).

As I’ve previously written, unlike their heavy and large industrial robot cousins, cobots are nimbler and more user-friendly. Universal Robots designed cobots to be collaborative, working with humans instead of replacing them. Founded in 2005 by three university students in Denmark, Universal Robots was the first company to deliver commercially viable cobots. The company launched its first cobot in 2008. Being user-friendly is one of the most important reasons why their cobots have gained wide acceptance in different industries. After all, robots won’t become mainstream if you need to be a rocket scientist to operate them. To date, the company has sold more than 46,000 cobots around the world.

I, Cobot

Different companies are deploying cobots in Asia Pacific, including PT JVC Electronics Indonesia.
Different companies are deploying cobots in Asia Pacific, including PT JVC Electronics Indonesia.

The “Meet the Cobot Leaders” session was part of “WeAreCobots APAC”. This is the first collaborative robots virtual expo in Asia Pacific that Universal Robots is hosting from Oct. 6-8.

The virtual expo features hundreds of automation experts sharing their insights on how companies in the Asia Pacific can overcome manufacturing challenges, with 15 online keynote sessions and 45 live demos. So as you can see, robots becoming an important part of human society isn’t just science fiction or theory. Whether they are cobots assisting human co-workers in the manufacturing, healthcare, and other industries, or social robots instantly recognizing and socially interacting with human customers, robots are here — and they’re here to stay.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it’s even more important to allay the all-too-human fear that robots might replace us one day. With all the pandemic-related layoffs, people are increasingly worrying over job security. The crisis has seen the return of the fear of robots displacing human workers, even as experts say robots will increasingly become integrated into human society.

Helping humans

While such fears are understandable, the reality is that robots, particularly cobots, are here to help humans survive all these changes. Not replace them.

“Pre-COVID, we actually saw that almost every statistic in unemployment data worldwide would show exactly the opposite. Those countries with the highest level of automation — collaborative robots and automation in general — had the lowest unemployment. So purely statistically, it was shown already pre-COVID that that was the case. And I can understand when we go through the pandemic, people are very worried about their job security. But I’m very clear that the idea of the cobot is not to replace humans,” Universal Robots President Jürgen von Hollen said in response to my question.

Embracing robots

The fear of robots is similar to concerns over artificial intelligence, or AI. But again, AI is meant to complement human intelligence, not replace it. Which is why IBM, for instance, prefers referring to AI as augmented intelligence.

I believe in adopting a more positive attitude towards robots, like the Japanese. By overcoming fear, we will realize how powerful the combination of humans and robots working together is.

“As the world becomes more chaotic, quicker, and more dynamic, those companies that are fully invested in a static automation environment will not survive. It’s those companies that combine the strengths of both [humans and robots that will survive],” Von Hollen said.

Facing the future together

Cobots are already playing a vital role during the COVID-19 crisis in helping humans adapt to sudden change.

“In Asia Pacific, business owners and operators have to juggle costs, value creation, and profit. In some locales where real estate is costly, such as Singapore and other metropolitan cities, cobots can be a tremendous help in maximizing floor space with human operators and cobots working in tandem to achieve the highest levels of production while adhering to physical distancing guidelines,” said Universal Robots Regional Director of APAC James McKew.

Universal Robots’ cobots do not require professional engineers or software developers to utilize the cobots. So anyone who can operate a simple graphical tablet will be able to use them after some basic training.

For example, cobots have found their way into medical applications because of the COVID-19 crisis. Cobots are performing swab testing, sterilization, and mobilized disinfection, including the disinfection of aircraft seat armrests. This is to alleviate the possibility of repetitive strain injuries or even infections in humans.

As you can see, cobots can help future-proof businesses and make human society more resilient. After all, the world has been changing long before COVID-19. And it will continue to change after the pandemic and whatever new challenges will come our way.

Together, humans and robots can face these challenges — and build a better world.