Make Way for Cobots

Czech writer Karel Čapek first coined the term ‘Robot’ in his 1920 play R.U.R. about a dystopian future in which artificial, manufactured “roboti” act human-like and perform tasks in servitude to their human masters, only to later to form a rebellion that leads to the extension of the human race. Many of the visions and dreams about what intelligent machines can be and the fears associated with them are in this way related to the origin of the term Robot in this way. Originally envisioned as physical, hardware things, the term robot is used in a wide array of manners to deal with any sort of software or hardware-based automation, whether intelligent or not.

Yet, physical robots are still highly desired in many industries, especially to perform tasks often referred to as the four “D’s”: Dirty, Dangerous, Dear ( or Expensive), and Dull (or Demeaning). These robots operate every day in manufacturing, warehouse, health care, and other situations to perform the tasks that would otherwise be performed by humans with not always positive outcomes. However, to make industrial robots work in a reliable way without causing physical harm to humans, they often must be separated from physical human contact. Operating in entirely human-free zones or within cages that prevent accidental human contact. Or, if they are roaming about in the free world, they are constrained in their strength and capability so that they can’t inflict harm. But constraining physical robots in this way limits their application and power. Companies looking to increasingly automate and enable greater portions of their business that require physical human labor currently need ways to increase the interaction of robots and people without endangering their welfare.

Cobots: Augmented Intelligence Approaches to Physical Bots

Often the industrial robots that might come to mind when you think of physical bots operating in 4-Ds type environments need separation from humans to operate safely. However “collaborative robots”, known by the shorthand “cobots” are meant to operate in conjunction with, and in close proximity, to humans to perform their tasks. Indeed, unlike their more isolated counterparts, cobots are intentionally built to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace. Cobots aren’t actually new. The first examples emerged in the mid 1990s from university research projects and the General Motors (GM) Robotics center in which humans would provide the power to make the machines move while the cobots would provide the control and steering to place objects with precision. In this way, humans were safe because they controlled the power of the robot while gaining all the advantages in assistive capabilities that the machine would provide.

In many ways, cobots are the hardware version of augmented intelligence that we talk about in the software world. Instead of replacing humans with autonomous counterparts, cobots augment and enhance human capabilities with super strength, precision, and data capabilities so that they can do more and provide more value to the organization. Pioneered by robotics company KUKA and further developed by Universal Robots and then Rethink Robotics, cobots have increased their footprint in industrial settings both large and small.

Cobots are also trained differently than traditional industrial robots. Rather than programmed to a specific set of steps using programming tools, many cobots are trained by demonstration. Humans control the bot by physically moving it around, with the cobot remembering the steps and perhaps even the end goal of what is being accomplished, and then repeats those steps, optimizing them to achieve increasingly better outcomes.

Broadening the Application of the Cobots

There are a few really interesting implications of the cobot term and concept. From a technical perspective, it’s interesting that even in heavy industrial applications where traditional non-collaborative robots have been used for decades, cobots are seeing increasing adoption. It’s clear that there are a range of automation and intelligence tasks that previously couldn’t be addressed by dangerous to interact with robots, that can now be intelligently automated with collaborative robotic solutions.  If hardcore robotic adopters like automotive and industrial solutions can find uses for cobots, surely the softer manufacturing, logistics, supply chain, warehouse, and perhaps even retail and consumer industries can find a range of cobot use cases. Will the Starbucks barista of the future be a cobot? From what we can tell, this is an inevitability.

More importantly, the entire concept of the cobot is its cooperation and ability to work in close proximity to humans. These cobots are aimed at augmenting what humans do, to make humans more effective, efficient, and enhanced. Indeed, if the old robotics focused on the 4 Ds’, then the new cobotics focuses on the Three E’s: efficiency, effectiveness, and enhancement.

Since cobots are aimed at helping humans do their jobs better and not replacing them, it’s no surprise that human acceptance and enthusiasm in working with cobots is high. Companies see much greater adoption with cobots working alongside humans than they do with robots that are meant to replace their activities. Many view the term “robot” as scary (much thanks to Čapek for kicking off our fears), but the term “cobot” is more comforting and friendly.

If this is the case, then why are we not using the term cobot to apply to collaborative bot technology that’s software based? We’ve had much concerns about the term Robotic Process Automation, which seems to combine the idea of unintelligent automation with human-replacement robotic concepts. It’s no wonder enterprises get resistance from their workers trying to implement software bots that aim to replace human labor. Instead, as we discussed in our Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) report, we should be talking about cognitive process cobots. Rather than dealing with unintelligent, human-antagonizing robots, we have helpful, human-assisting cobots. Rather than being hardware based, these cobots are software-based intelligent assistants that aim to help humans do their jobs better. They provide the three E’s described above: efficiency, effectiveness, and enhancement. What’s not to love about your friendly process cobot?

Changing an Industry by Changing Terminology

Sometimes all that’s necessary to achieve new outcomes and benefits it to change the terminology that’s used. Terminology impacts many aspects of technology adoption: how people perceive your place in the market, who your competition is, how the technology can be applied, what concerns and issues may arise, and even things like price point and implementation complexity. If you call a car a person transporter instead, you might have a different opinion about what the car is used for, what alternatives to the car there are, and perhaps how many people can fit into it. If you call a bus a multi-person vehicle, similarly your impressions of what the bus is changes.

Similarly, using the term “robot” might not be a good fit for all autonomous or intelligent applications. Simply calling something a robot conveys something in the mind of the user, adopter, and buyer. Calling it something else, even if the technology stays the same, might bring different concepts to mind. Since the term robot is overloaded with many connotations both positive and negative, we should shift how we refer to intelligent assistants and augmented intelligence solutions. Those solutions that are meant to replace humans with intelligent assistants, and perhaps even be isolated from humans to operate with greatest safety can be called robots, if that term applies. And conversely, those applications where intelligent assistants are meant to be used in an augmented fashion, working side-by-side with humans to assist them with tasks can be called cobots, if that term fits. In this way we can separate the fears and desires from using one word with that of another and focus on the application and not the specific terminology.

Ronald Schmelzer

Managing Partner at Cognilytica
Ron is principal analyst, managing partner, and founder of the Artificial Intelligence-focused analyst and advisory firm Cognilytica, and is also the host of the AI Today podcast, SXSW Innovation Awards Judge, founder and operator of TechBreakfast demo format events, and an expert in AI, Machine Learning, Enterprise Architecture, venture capital, startup and entrepreneurial ecosystems, and more.Prior to founding Cognilytica, Ron founded and ran ZapThink, an industry analyst firm focused on Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), Cloud Computing, Web Services, XML, & Enterprise Architecture, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in August 2011.

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