In good hands: the robots taking our jobs, with a human touch

In good hands: the robots taking our jobs, with a human touch
Baxter and Sawyer are designed to collaborate with people, performing a range of repetitive jobs – but for some tasks there are no tools better than human hands
By Olivia Solon in San Francisco
Oct 14 2016

As humans battle with the idea that many of our jobs will be replaced by robots, we should be grateful that our hands are so capable. Our fleshy paws have evolved to perform such a complex range of actions that, for at least a range of tasks, robots simply can’t compete. At least for now.

“We still have not made much progress on making dexterous hands for robots,” said Rodney Brooks, the chief executive of Rethink Robotics, speaking at the Quartz event The Next Billion in San Francisco.

Rethink Robotics makes robots – called Baxter and Sawyer – designed to work alongside and collaborate with humans. These collaborative robots (or “cobots”) can perform a wide range of repetitive tasks, including operating machinery, moving components into position in manufacturing and passing items to humans working on a production line.

In these repetitive jobs, the robots can be “truly interchangeable” with humans, Brooks said. However, when more dexterity and versatility is needed – when you need to grip, hammer, twist, roll, or sense the weight and friction of objects – there are no tools better than human hands.

The reason why it’s such a big challenge is because it requires many different skills to solve the problem.

“We need better actuators, materials, sensors,” Brooks said. “You can’t just have a computer science department build a better hand, you need a whole team of people from different disciplines.”

Not everyone agrees with Brooks. Rosanna Myers, CEO and co-founder of Carbon Robotics, which makes a trainable robot arm, thinks focusing on hands is a red herring.

“A lot of robotics companies get really focused on arbitrary grasping and this idea that you’d have one tool that could do everything, but the entire reason we invented tools is to move past hands. If you’re trying to screw something together, the best tool isn’t a hand, it’s a screwdriver,” she said in an email.

For Myers, the biggest challenge holding back robotics is the lack of the robot equivalent to the PC. “Something fast and precise enough for real business uses, simple enough that anyone can use, and inexpensive enough that you can throw them at any problem.”

Either way, we’re not there yet.



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