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Robotics technology needs to go beyond automation

A global robotics expert at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics says next-generation robots will need to keep humans in the loop to tackle immediate social problems

Robots are good at performing repetitive tasks on factory floors today, but next-generation robotics will go beyond automation use cases, according to a leading robotics expert.

“Traditionally, we thought about robots as repeating things that we tell them to do – and we’ve been pushing the science to go towards more autonomy,” said Sethu Vijayakumar, director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.

“But in my opinion, the next challenge is somewhere in between – where we want to have robots that are able to make decisions on their own autonomously, but also be able to have humans in the loop.”

Speaking at the ConnectGov Leaders Summit in Edinburgh, Vijayakumar said next-generation robots will collaborate with humans to solve “immediate social problems across domains” such as industrial safety, healthcare and disaster relief.

In industrial safety, for example, robots can be deployed in inaccessible locations to maintain public infrastructure.

“We face significant challenges in terms of maintaining our infrastructure, such as underground sewerage systems,” said Vijayakumar. “We are going to get to a stage where it is physically impossible for us to look at the integrity and safety of these things.”

But it could take some time to get there even with the current pace of technological development, because of the uncertainties of the real world, and the prevalence of noise and sensors in decision-making, said Vijayakumar.

“Still, we have to really get to a stage where we can exploit the best of both worlds,” he said. “Robots are very good at performing very precise motion, while humans are very good at contextual decision-making.”

Some progress has been made, said Vijayakumar. Citing healthcare as an example, he noted that while robots can play a significant role in cancer surgery, it is still surgeons who have the skills to make decisions on the types of intervention to make in cancer treatment.

“We want to use robotics as a way to provide more interesting visual aids to help identify the exact tumour locations using imaging technologies,” he said. “And that’s where we can bring the best of both worlds.”

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In the healthcare domain, Vijayakumar said exoskeletons can be used to help humans in recovery, reducing the strain on national healthcare systems.

“So instead of overloading the NHS, we can develop robotic systems to support people to live healthy lives in a different way,” he said.

According to market data from Research and Markets, the industrial robotics market alone was valued at $18bn in 2018 and is expected to reach $40.8bn by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of 14.1% between 2019 and 2024.

The market research firm cited the rising penetration of the internet of things and investments in robotics across regions as major contributors to the market growth.

For instance, the Made in China 2025 initiative was aimed at broadly upgrading the Chinese industry by moving toward quality-focused and innovation-driven manufacturing, it said.

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