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  • The Cobot Experience: Lionel P Robert Jr. & The Risks and Rewards of Human-Robot Interaction

    The University of Michigan's Lionel P Robert Jr. talks human-robot interaction, anthropomorphism, the importance of education and the potential for cobot designs to reduce anxiety about widespread automation. 

    Lionel Roberts Jr PIC
    Lionel P. Robert Jr. with the Baxter collaborative robot. 

    Lionel P. Robert Jr. is an expert in human-robot interaction (HRI) with a focus on manufacturing environments, robots as coworkers and autonomous vehicles.   

    As an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and Michigan Robotics Institute, director of MAVRIC and co-director of the University of Michigan's DOW Lab, Robert Jr. also possesses a broad perspective on a range of important topics from human labor displacement through automation to robot design.  

    Roberts Jr. kindly agreed to be interviewed about his work and the unique role cobots play in today's manufacturing.

    The Interview

    EC: From the perspective of human-robot interaction, what makes cobots different from traditional industrial robots?  

    LR: Robots are going to replace a lot of human labor.  But humans are very flexible.  So ultimately, the best package is to have a human and a robot working side by side.  This is what makes cobots particularly fruitful.  But it's just part of the picture.

    In the past, we had to separate robots from people using cages because of safety issues.  That limited what humans and robots could do working together as a team.

    With the introduction of cobots we're able to remove those barriers and really leverage this human-robot capability in new ways; ways we always knew were possible, but didn't think were technically feasible.

    collaborative robots in global companies

    EC:  Removing safety cages and barriers opens up a new set of psychological scenarios for end-users.  Are there special psychological factors at play when humans interact with cobots?

    LR:  'Perceived safety' is a top priority for humans.  Humans need to feel safe when they are working around a robot.  After that, the relationship develops so that the human sees the robot as a collaborator, as something that can be trusted and engaged with unguarded.  

    Ease of use is also important.  If people experience additional mental workload in the day-to-day running of the robot, that means more stress, which is not a good thing in the long run.  

    It's important that humans believe the robot has their back.  That it will help them out. That knowledge releases a lot of the cognitive workload on the human and that, in turn, releases a lot of stress.  

    It's also important that humans know that they are not going to lose their job if everything goes well between them and the robot.

    EC:  Every end-user has a unique relationship with their cobot.  In your view, are end-users generally best served by viewing their cobot as a colleague, a tool, a type of remote prosthesis, or some other category, and why?    

    LR:  That's a good question.  At the moment the research seems headed towards thinking of robots as a colleague.  That's what we're all trying to do.  

    But it's not clear to me that seeing cobots as colleague is always a good thing.  Humanizing robots can lead to a lot of unexpected problems.  For example, it can lead to raised and unrealistic expectations, possibly followed by the idea of being let down and disappointed.  

    EC:  We humans certainly appear to have a deeply-ingrained tendency to anthropomorphism, which can lead us to treat robots as other 'persons,' perhaps even with their own personalities.  This seems to apply in particular to humanoid robots.  Does your research confirm this tendency, especially in relation to cobots?  

    LR:  Yes, it does.  

    As a matter of fact, we did a study recently where we were able to manipulate this perception by creating a robot that was similar to the human coworker in terms of its gender and personality.  When the robot was similar to the humans, humans were more likely to trust it and more likely to want to work with the robot.

    To encourage successful human-robot collaboration, I think designers should go ahead and leverage this trait when designing robot personalities.  

    EC:  Now I'm wondering whether anthropomorphism is a feature or a design flaw...   

    LR:  Anthropomorphism is both a feature and a design flaw under the right circumstance. 


    What is human-robot interaction and why does anthropomorphism matter?  HRI expert Christoph Bartneck explores... 


    EC:  We humans are also known for making certain types of judgments about other people within seconds of meeting them for the first time.  Does this tendency transfer to the robot and cobot realm too?  

    LR:  Yes, it does.  In a previous study, one of the ways that we determined robot gender was simply by changing the robot's name and voice.  We found that as soon as we gave the robot a female name and voice, people immediately made a whole host of judgments about the robot being a female.

    This can be good and bad.  It's not always good because people can have preconceived notions about gender and those notions are quickly imported as soon as the robot displays a certain personality or gender profile.  

    EC:  So, first impressions are important, but the real benefits of a successful cobot implementation to workers are shown over time –e.g. reduced workload, extra time to work on more interesting tasks, reduced repetitive strain injuries, and so on.  In your research have you looked at manufacturing end-users attitudes towards their cobots over time?  

    LR:  Nope.  But, understanding the impact of time may be a bit problematic due to survival bias.  In other words, employees who are still working collaboratively with robots may be atypical when compared with employees who might have left the company or changed their position because they did not want to continue to work with the robot.  Therefore, we need to be careful when attempting to generalize from such studies with regards to the broader population.

    EC:  So, what advice do you have for end-users, especially those that may not have worked with a cobot before?

    LR:  I think they should educate themselves.  People should also get an opportunity to take a look at the robot before it is installed.  After that, a lot of the relationship will depend on how well the robot has been designed to induce a sense of safety.  

    Removing the air of mystery is important from the management perspective too.  A lack of information will lead people to come up with their own theories, they read rumors and myths and start wondering what's going on with the robot.  All that can lead to a lot of trouble.  

    Educating end-users about the pros and cons, as you would do with any other kind of technology, is important.  End-users need to be open to that too.  Your best chance as a human --in terms of keeping a job and being productive within the manufacturing workforce-- could be your ability to work with a robot

    One of the things that we really need to think about as a society is how to train people on robots.  That skill is going to become very valuable going forward. 

    robotiq skills to integrate a robot ebook

    EC:  What are your views on human labor displacement through automation?

    LR:  There will undoubtedly be benefits to using robots.  But there are going to be winners and losers.  Unfortunately, as with many things, the wins are going to be disproportionately allocated to certain groups of people and the losses will be disproportionately allocated to certain groups of people.  

    If we rely on the idea of the free market and pretend it will take care of itself, we will have a lot of people falling by the wayside.  When people fall by the wayside, they vote for people who make promises of change.  This is already happening in America and Western Europe.

    If we don't make a conscious effort to be aware of these problems and make sure that automation is a benefit for society as a whole and if we tell ourselves that that everything will be fine, guided by the 'invisible hand' of capitalism, I'm afraid that we're going to be in trouble.

    EC:  So what can be done and do cobots have a role?  

    LR:  For the most part, we design technology to replace humans.  Maybe a better way to approach things is to design robots that enable people instead of replacing them.

    EC:  That's one of the great things about cobots, isn't it?

    LR:  Yes.  Exactly.  The benefit of cobots is that you have that potential.  You have a design intended to include humans.  That's what makes cobots so unique.  

    (Note: The interview was edited for length and clarity. It was conducted for educational purposes and the views expressed therein are those of the expert and do not necessarily reflect those of Robotiq. )

    getting started with collaborative robots

    Read more »
  • What's New In Robotics?  14.06.2019

    Good morning.  In this week's news mix: MIT algorithm predicts human movement, a prototype medical cobot is unveiled, and Ford's use of cobots "growing exponentially."  We also meet a crab-inspired trash-collecting seabot, encounter totally the least ironic robot in all the world and much more!  

    Cobots & manufacturing

    The use of cobots in medical applications continues to spread, making this a legitimate cobot trend for 2019.  This week, researchers at Australia's Swinburne University of Technology unveiled a fully-working prototype cobot system that can provide laser therapy treatments for chronic pain caused by soft tissue injuries. 

    Credit: Swinburne University of Technology

    Via PhysOrg:

    "Using the same technology used in cricket to show whether the ball has made contact with the bat, a thermal camera scans the patient and locates injuries and inflammation by identifying hot spots in a thermal image," [project lead] Dr. Isaksson says. "The location of the hot spot is then sent to the collaborative robot that moves a low-level infrared laser into contact with the patient to perform treatment.

    In the 2nd installment of Pierson Workholding's entertaining 'The Robot' video series, employees react to their new UR cobot and Jay Pierson mtakes a trip to Numatic Engineering to get an overview of the latest peripherals for the UR series, including Robotiq's Hand-E adaptive gripper... 

    MIT researchers have developed an algorithm that predicts where humans will move next, opening up new possibilities for human-robot collaboration.  Via Science Daily:

    "This algorithm builds in components that help a robot understand and monitor stops and overlaps in movement, which are a core part of human motion," says Julie Shah, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. "This technique is one of the many ways we're working on robots better understanding people." 

    The team will present their results at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference in Germany later this month.  

    Accenture showcased a nice cobot and Robotiq 2-finger gripper setup for handling petri dishes at the recent re:MARS conference...

    Automaker Ford's use of cobots is "growing exponentially," Harry Kekedjian, Ford advanced controls and digital factory manager, told Industry Week: "The increase in efficiency they bring over traditional robots is opening up our eyes on different ways to process the work content that normally we wouldn’t have thought of before," said Kekedjian. 

    AND&OR released video showing off a cobot-based packing system...

    A new report from PMMI Business Intelligence predicts growing adoption of cobots, with the majority of participants predicting that cobots will experience a boom, "finding niche applications along the line for simple, slower motion tasks." Fulfilling e-commerce orders will drive growth, but there is still some way to go.  “Four out of five OEMs offer fully integrated robotics on their machinery; only one OEM has incorporated cobots so far,” said Paula Feldman, Director of PMMI Business Intelligence. (H/T Packaging World)

    In related reading...



    The crab-inspired SILVER 2 ('Seabed-Interaction Legged Vehicle for Exploration and Research 2') robot made its first dive off the Italian coast this week.  Developed by researchers at the Institute of Robotics of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna di Pisa, in collaboration with National Geographic Society and Arbi Dario Spa, the eco-conscious bot is designed to detect and collect plastic pollution.

    Credit:  Laura Lezza / Getty Images

    Project scientific coordinator Marcello Calisti told Sant’Anna di Pisa magazine:

    “This bio-inspired robot can hop and jump in broader areas through a spring-loaded mechanism.  The spring has a simple structure, energy storage and release, and simple control so the robot can jump through an instantaneous contraction of the spring.  The crab-like legs include ankle joints which have good jump performance.”

    A team of student robotics engineers at Carnegie Mellon unveiled a remarkable climbing robot this week.  Dubbed 'T-RHex' the bot uses microspines on its tapered toes to help it grip rough surfaces and make its way up steep slopes.

    Credit: CMU

    IEEE Spectrum reports:

    Robots that use microspines to climb tend to be fairly methodical at it, since the microspines have to be engaged and disengaged with care, limiting their non-climbing mobility. T-RHex manages to perform many of the same sorts of climbing and hanging maneuvers without losing RHex’s ability for quick, efficient wheel-leg (wheg) locomotion.

    As Canadian singer Alanis Morissette proved beyond any doubt way back in 1995, the concept of irony can be difficult to define.  Undaunted, researchers at Augsburg University unveiled 'Irony Man' --a bot with an ironic conversational style-- this week. 

    scientists-insufferable-robot-irony-1200x630Irony Man Credit: HCM-Lab, Augsburg University/Victor Tangermann

    Via Futurism:

    In a test with 12 students, Irony Man was deemed more likable than conventional robots. But Irony Man’s inability to know when to use irony could backfire.  “The robot is not yet able to determine whether and when there is a good moment to employ irony,” André said. “It may happen that the robot generates a funny utterance, but the user is irritated.

    In other headlines...

    • TG invests in robotics firm to advance e-Rubber (European Rubber Journal)
    • EU publishes Europe-wide rules on drone operation (AP News)
    • What’s so sweet about sugar cube-sized robots? (C4ISRNET)
    • MHI develops explosion-proof robot (World Nuclear News)
    • The Navy has designed a robot that looks and swims like a marlin (TechLink)

    Come back next week for more of the latest robotics news!  Until then, please enjoy...

    Five vids for Friday

    1.  Parul University is host to Mitra, India's "most advanced humanoid robot."  New video shows the bot in action providing directions and erm... 'motivational advice' to students. 

    2.  With giant cargo-carrying drones on the way, The Verge explored the current state of the technology and issues around regulation and energy consumption.  

    3.  Video released this week showcases the tireless efforts of floor-scrubbing bot Neo.  

    4.  Oussama Khatib, director of Stanford Robotics Lab, recently gave a fascinating introductory talk on various aspects of human-robot collaboration.  

    5.  Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has unveiled a pair of firefighting robots designed to assist humans in fire-fighting missions.

    Read more »
  • 9 of the Dullest, Dirtiest & Most Danger-Loving Robots!

    In appreciation of all the boredom, ill health and danger that robots have spared us, come celebrate 9 of the dullest, dirtiest, and most danger-loving robots around...

     They are the Three Ds of Robotics: the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous.  These are the tasks that humans can't, won't or would rather not do, from repetitive industrial and manufacturing tasks through medical cleaning to being hurled in the general direction of interstellar space.  

    So, in appreciation of all the boredom, ill health and danger that robots have spared us, let's celebrate 9 of the best! 


    The Dull

    Repeatability, accuracy, endurance.  These qualities make for dull, reliable and highly-successful robots.

    The Patient Paint Inspection Bot  

    1.  If you think watching paint dry is a bit boring, spare a thought for the world's paint inspection robots, who spend their days and nights tirelessly searching for drips, runs, and other imperfections on painted surfaces.  

    Paint-DiscontinuitiesTypical paint  and surface defects. Credit: Elcometer USA

    Particularly popular in the automotive and aerospace sectors (but also important to storage tank manufacturers and others), these bots free humans to work on solving --rather than finding-- paint-related problems.

    Micro-Epsilon's reflectCONTROL PSS 8005.D automated paint inspection robot is specially designed for inspecting large objects.  Four of these bots, placed on either side of a car shell is able to perform a complete surface inspection in just 60 seconds.  This bot has been around for over a decade and this model must have inspected hundreds of thousands of car shell paint jobs in that time.  That's a lot of dull human labor eliminated.

    Watch this highly-efficient, but very dull robot in action...   


    See also: 

    2. The Tedious Thermal Spraying Robot 

    Thermal spraying can be tedious and time-consuming work. 

    Credit:  The Fabricator

    The repetitive nature of the task isn't the only challenge though: a range of hazards from high temperatures, toxic gases, blinding light, poisonous metallic dust, and elevated radiation levels combine to make spray rooms places you don't want to be unless you're kitted out with the best safety equipment available.  And even then, you would probably prefer to be on a beach.  (With suncream on.) Or engaged on a higher-level task. 

    The UR10 collaborative robot from Universal Robots doesn't care about any of that stuff.  More than three years in continuous operation, this focused and dedicated cobot has been working at Aircraft Tooling Inc. without once fantasizing about going on vacation or taking on more interesting challenges.    


    See also:

    3. The Repetitive Testing Bot 

    There's no way to hide it, some tasks are extremely dull, repetitive and unfulfilling. 

    Credit: SHORPY

    How about inspecting the temperature of frozen peas all day?  Or 12 hour shifts where your only job is to squeeze plastic milk bottles to see if they leak?  Or having a job that consists of nothing except slicing 50lb (23kg) slabs of cheese into four parts?  (Source: BBC, "Some of the world's most boring jobs.")

    Thankfully, robots have not discovered how to experience boredom, so they don't mind performing tasks many humans would find mind-numbing, such as testing the same part over and over.  Some bots, like Ford's 'Robutt' perform tasks so tedious and time-consuming that they are beyond human capabilities.  Instead of having a human durability testing worker put a car seat through a decade's worth of regular wear and tear by sitting down on it 25,000 times, Robutt does all the work.   


    Ford Europe revealed that Robutt received an update in early 2019 so that it can now able to simulate a sweaty butt.  If Robutt keeps expanding its repertoire like this, it won't be on this list of dull robots for long, so enjoy it while you can! 

    See also:

    The Dirty

    These robots take 'getting your hands dirty' to a whole new level, so you don't have to.

    4. The Sewer Bot

    From Pittsburgh to Zurich, robots are used for inspection and repair of sewer systems.  Overcoming frightening 'fatbergs,' cigarette butt canyons and diabolical diaperscapes, these bots can force their way through a wide variety of debris from liquid waste to concrete, sparing humans the unpleasant --and often extremely dangerous-- job of doing it ourselves. 

    A section of the infamous, 130-ton Whitechapel fatberg.  Credit: Thames Water

    Some sewer robots, like the Bandicoot, from Kerala, India-based startup Genrobotics, can also detect levels of toxic gases in sewer systems, a crucially important feature in a country where an estimated 1,600 people have died tragically between 2014 and 2018 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.  


    See also: 

    5. The Bacteria-Powered Bot

    This robot's so dirty, that it's powered by bacteria!  Meet 'Row-Bot' an ingeniously-designed, autonomous bot designed to clean up pollution in waterways.

    Main: Row-Bot with mouth open.  Inset: Mouth closed. Credit:  University of Bristol

    Row-Bot swims around with its 'mouth' open to collect microbes, which it then breaks down in a microbial fuel cell to generate the electricity it needs to continue operating.  The bot can also be used to neutralize algal bloom and oil slicks.

    Row-Bot's creator Jonathan Rossiter sees the device as a precursor to "biodegradable, autonomous pollution-fighting robots," as he explained in a TEDTalk... 


    See also:  


    6. The Bacteria-Zapping Bot 

    Bacteria haven't survived for millions of years without learning how to adapt to their surroundings.  With the development of antibiotics we have seen the rise of 'Superbugs' --strains of bacteria immune to antiobiotic treatment. 

    The Pseudomonas aeruginosa superbug is on the World Health Organization's
    list of highest priority needs for new antibiotics. Credit: Janice Haney Carr/CDC

    In the U.S. alone, at least 2 million people get antibiotic resistant infections each year and at least 23,000 die, according to the Center for Disease Control

    Enter germ-fighting robots, designed to kill hospital superbugs.  The 'LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robot' from San Antonio, Texas-based Xenex uses pulses of germicidial UV light to obliterate life-threatening superbugs.  A 2019 study from the world-renowned Mayo Clinic found that adding these bots to existing disinfection efforts resulted in a 47% reduction in C.diff infection rates, an increase in patient satisfaction scores for environmental cleanliness and a 52% reduction in Vancomycin-resistant enterococci infection rates.

    Get down and dirty with one of Xenex's robots in this training video... 


    See also:

    The Most Danger-Loving

    OK.  So, strictly speaking robots can't be 'danger-loving' because they can't experience fear. (Or love.)   This is probably a good thing.  If robots were able to experience fear, they would turn down dangerous missions like these...

    7. The Interstellar Bot  

    Can you imagine giving the following set of instructions to a human? 

    Credit: The Reluctant Astronaut  (Via IMDB)

    "Your mission is to head 'thataway,' never to return, in the general direction of the Oort cloud, cutting through the vast emptiness of space at incredible speeds eventually to depart our solar system and entering the Kelvin-cold expanse of interstellar space, until decades from now you run out of fuel (if you're lucky enough to avoid an impact that destroys or disables you before then) and end up careening around deep space with nothing else to do except send streams of data back to Earth, which is all we really care about.  Goodbye and good luck."

    I can't either.  That's because the vast bulk of space exploration work is for fearless robots like Voyager I and II. 

    Find out more about the Voyager program in this documentary... 


    See also:

    8. The Bomb Disposal Bot 

    Bomb disposal is such a dangerous job that finding people to work in Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) teams has become "a hard sell," even among military personnel.  

    Credit: Getty Images  (Via BBC)

    Bomb disposal robots have been around for decades; the originals were crude devices, like the model shown above, and were controlled via tangles of control cables.  These robots were good, but they weren't a patch on today's machines. 

    SRI International's Taurus provides virtual reality features and remote controls fitted with haptic sensory feedback technology and other gizmos.  No stranger to danger, the teleoperated Taurus performs its work without translating into action the sweating, trembling and sometimes stressed out decision-making that can have dangerous consequences for human EOD experts.

    Explore Taurus' telepresence manipulation system...


    See also:

    getting started with collaborative robots

    9. The Plume Bot 

    Anywhere close to the toxic ash plume formed by an erupting volcano is no safe place for a human being to be.  Whether it's dodging pyroclastic flows on the ground at the crater's edge or withstanding hot waves of poisonous gas from 10,000 feet, danger-loving robots go to places that are unsafe or impossible for volcanologists to get to. 




    via GIPHY


     In 2017, researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol collected measurements from directly within volcanic clouds, together with visual and thermal images of inaccessible volcano peaks in Guatemala, using a bespoke drone that flew at 10,000 right into the plume.  And it survived.  The fixed-wing drone was flown from up to 8km (4.97 miles) away too, creating an even safer environment for operators.  All in a day's work for a fearless robot. 

    Check out the results here... 


    See also:


    Do you have a favorite dull, dirty, or danger-loving robot?  Let us know in the comments!

    Read more »

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