Everyone is talking about, and to, Robots
Robotics, a buzzword that is heard almost anywhere and everywhere now. A concept, that was once upon a time limited to hi-tech manufacturing industries, has now spread leaps and bounds to almost every place or application one can imagine. These days, you don’t have to scout through pages of a technology journal or thought paper to learn about innovation in the field of robotics. The subject has become so popular (and rightfully so) that it has found a place even in everyday articles, newspapers, television shows and so on. As per a recent survey, Robotics is one of the top trending technologies sharing a prime space with Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Big Data, Blockchain, etc. I personally think that the primary reason for this stardom, of course apart from all the ‘cool’ things robots can do, is how close they have got in our regular routine. In today’s modern world, we are always interacting with robots, sometimes knowingly and at other occasions, obliviously. What’s more interesting is the fact that this interaction is not just limited to the period when we are awake and active. Even if we are sleeping, some of the robots, that are part of our day-to-day technology savvy life, aren’t. For example, smartphones, smartwatches and those little bracelets called fitbits keep working while we are in deep slumber keeping a track of sleep patterns, REMs, heart rate, pulse and much more. But isn’t this what they are supposed to do?! For some people (a.k.a humans), the bigger question could be “why”, for others it might be “why not”. And then there is also another faction who would ask “how”. This article is intended for all of the above.
Back in the day, the purpose of a robot was to obey commands and do the job assigned. It was a one-way communication and the response (implied, not explicit) from a robot invariably had to be, as they say in military language, “Wilco” (Will comply, with the orders). Well, over the years, even though the primary purpose has remained the same, robots are doing much more than just performing a set of mundane tasks. In fact, even our expectations from them have grown exponentially and the robots, fueled with new technology, are coming through with flying colors.
Robots have evolved from something having a form, fit and function to something that can work equally well, or maybe even better, with just a fit and function but no form. In simple terms, not all robots can be “seen”. We refer to this category in our IT world with a term or jargon – Soft Robot or just “bot”. Here are some of the key differences between that and a typical industrial robot. By no means one can be deemed superior than the other. It’s the requirement and application which makes either one more relevant or practical to use.
Physical Industrial Robot
Place of installation: Fixed
Dimensions: Wide range, depending on the actual equipment
Type of job performed: Generally same or set of relatively similar tasks
Availability: Mostly round the clock
Need for maintenance: Periodic per robot
Programming: Manufacturer specific
Response time: Depends on motor speed
Operating cost factors: Equipment cost, installation cost, maintenance charges
Integration with other systems: Through hardware, adapters or interfaces
Lifecycle: Replaced with newer versions at end of life
Ability to scan or read information: Through integrated equipment (e.g., NFC / barcode reader)
IoT readiness: Partial (only newer equipment)
Example: Fanuc Palletizer
Place of installation: Flexible
Dimensions: Dimensionless (virtual)
Type of job performed: Any – even if tasks are strikingly different
Availability: Mostly round the clock
Need for maintenance: Periodic for a platform that hosts a number of robots
Programming: System / application specific
Response time: Depends on server speed
Operating cost factors: Development cost, licensing cost, support fees
Integration with other systems: Through user interface
Lifecycle: Upgraded with newer versions at end of life
Ability to scan or read information: Through connected external equipment (e.g., scanner)
IoT readiness: Full (all versions)
Example: Infosys EdgeVerve AssistEdge
But these are not just the only two groups in which robots can be clubbed into. A third type has recently rolled out of the robot factory, well figuratively. I like to call it the hybrid variant – take a physical robot, load it up with some soft robot programming and add top if off with artificial intelligence. Although I tried to explain the concept like a simple drink recipe, am sure building an actual hybrid robot takes much more, rather substantially more, than this. Examples of these variants include, but not limited to:
- Hanson Robotics’ Sophia – the humanoid that was doing the rounds on internet. Interestingly, Sophia was also offered a citizenship by Saudi Arabia
- IBM’s Pepper – powered by their flagship AI platform, Watson. Over the past few months, Pepper is finding a place on the center stage at quite a few major symposiums, such as Oracle Modern Supply Chain Experience, where I was able to see it in action
Robotics has evolved in a big way since the time of its inception. But the last few years have particularly seen a boom and this trend is expected to continue through the next couple of decades. At the World Economic Forum (in Davos, Switzerland), Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba (China’s largest e-commerce company) predicted that robots, coupled with AI and machine learning, are going to be able to handle an unbelievable number of tasks over the next decade or so. This may not have sounded logical maybe a decade ago, but seems totally plausible now.
The Smart Ones
Even though robots have been around for a while now, the ability to have an actual conversation with these machines has taken a new dimension these days. From an ‘I speak, the robot listens’ model, this has transformed into ‘I speak, the robot listens, the robot responds’ and even further. You can now have meaningful nested conversations with a robot, where it weaves a series of questions and responses into a logical communication thread. Virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) based customer support agents, are some good examples. What’s even more interesting is the self-learning potential that these smart robots can showcase with just some degree of artificial intelligence baked into them. I was amazed how my Google Home Mini could perfectly pronounce my name (which is of Indian origin) with the correct accent from the moment it came to life. I never taught this, so how did it know? Another trait that intrigues me is when I ask for a song, it automatically plays it through my Spotify account on its built-in speaker. But when a movie trailer is asked, it sends a signal to Chromecast and plays it from YouTube app on a connected TV! When in dilemma, its seeks clarification on my device preference, switching to it in a jiffy. This might sound not a big deal for humans, but think from a little robot’s perspective, which is just a tad larger in size than an ice hockey puck! These are just a couple of instances in everyday life which makes one wonder about the sheer intelligence of these robots.
Let’s talk about chat bots, another form of smart soft robots. It is not uncommon that we visit a website and a little “helper” pops up asking “May I help you?” Behind the scenes, this robot has a technology that is able to assist us with basic queries without having to go through an actual agent. For example, checking the status of an order or shipment, troubleshooting tips for common issues with a device, providing contact information of the correct department, etc. What it is doing is simulating a person reading or hearing key words and searching a database for relevant answers. Of course, when things start to get a little over basic and cannot be handled by the bot, it will promptly connect us to a customer service representative. But at least this has eliminated the first layer of inquiry, and the best part is, generally there is no wait time to talk to a bot and you are always number 1 in sequence! With bots getting smarter, the line in sand, beyond which a bot has to pass on the baton, is going farther and farther.
In fact, any platform having a front-end user interface could be considered incomplete without an assistant bot. Maybe that is why in its latest release, Microsoft introduced a new bot feature called “Who” in Microsoft Office 365 Teams application. By asking it simple questions, the bot lets you search for anyone in your organization based on what they are working on, who they work with and more. Through a quick instant message (IM) conversation, you can get information about people in your organization such as:
- locate experts on a topic
- look up a person, their supervisor or their team members
- find people you had a meeting with about a particular topic, etc.
In essence, “Who” saves you the effort of going through repositories such as the corporate directory, mailbox, calendars, etc. by doing that task on your behalf. What’s more important is that it performs this search in multiple data sources simultaneously and presents the results in merely a second or two, quite faster than it would take us to look up the same in a traditional manner.
Just like chat bots are an usual thing on websites, another feature which is quite common is Completely Automated Public Turing Test, more commonly known to us as CAPTCHA. Although this is also entirely related to robots, the intent is exactly opposite of the robots we have discussed so far. The primary purpose of this is to prevent automated scripts (bots, smart but in a wrong way) from clogging the system by creating too many transactions or even potentially hacking it. Two types of CAPTCHA that are the most common:
- A check box that needs to be checked to confirm that the person accessing that site is not a robot, or in other words, is a human
- A mix of garbled characters / numbers or an image showing the same which one must enter accurately (at times, even in the right case) in an empty box
Now as robots are getting smarter, CAPTCHA needs to equally reciprocate. A noteworthy example of this is the website of a leading financial corporation in India. In addition to having users check a box or replicate a text, it presents them with mathematical or logical questions. Examples:
- What is the sum of: 10 + 4 + 2
- Which set of alphabets is in middle of: Ma Ni Sh
These questions are quite basic, maybe comparable to elementary school syllabus, but the bottom line is only a human can read, process and answer them. Bad robots, stay out!
Robots have catapulted automation to levels that until now were seen only in sci-fi shows and movies. One of my neighbors, who installs heating and air-conditioning equipment for industries told me about his experience at a leading packaged drinking water manufacturing company here in Southeast Wisconsin. It was in the middle of a regular workday and he couldn’t hear any human voices on the shop floor. Reason – The entire plant was being operated by robots! They traversed on electro-magnetic guiderails avoiding any collision and meticulously performed almost every task from bottling and packing to picking and loading orders in trucks. In some cases, they acted as per instructions relayed wirelessly by a few folks, while in some scenarios, the robots themselves were the decision makers. I was totally enthralled to hear this story and wanted to see something like this in action. A few days later, I came across a video on LinkedIn showing how Alibaba’s largest warehouse is fully operated by robots! I also got a chance to visit Amazon’s fulfillment center near my home and see their robots swiftly and accurately taking care of things in perfect harmony! Such compact robots not only lift and move pallets much larger than their size, but also aptly move to rest areas at the right time (read: dock themselves at charging points when running low on battery).
Some time back, Dubai airport in collaboration with Emirates airlines did a pilot of a completely automated security screening system which they like to call it “the Aquarium”. Passengers have to pass through a tunnel with virtual reality walls featuring bots in the shape of fish. While the passengers look around to experience the life-like aquarium, high definition cameras mounted on these fish bots take pictures (along with retina scans) and the tunnel itself x-rays the person. Biometric and scan data is then processed in real time to determine the outcome of this screening. The process is completed in a matter of seconds and security cleared passengers are on their way to board the flight while the flagged ones have to proceed to secondary checks. The test was a huge success and the system is expected to be fully functional soon. Another technological marvel made possible because of robotics and automation!
Soft robots have opened up newer avenues for automation. Robotic Process Automation, also known as RPA, is becoming increasingly popular with enterprises. A basic RPA framework comprises of a group of soft robots that can perform repetitive, non-judgmental tasks. Varying degrees of intelligence, analysis and decision-making abilities can also be built-in. Further, the solution can be extended by integrating peripheral components that can supply data from non-electronic sources. For example, if a company needs to key in large volume of paper invoices on a regular basis, then an OCR (optical character recognition) software such as AnyDoc can be bundled with a compatible document scanner. Subsequently, bots in a RPA solution (such as AssistEdge from Infosys EdgeVerve) would consume (read) these scanned invoices and enter them into the system (say, Oracle ERP) making the process completely automated, well almost. The only manual task would be someone having to place the set of paper invoices on the scanner’s feed tray and replenishing it with a new batch once fully processed. Such RPA platforms can perform a multitude of tasks and are compatible with several systems. Usage of bots can be optimized by sharing them across departments, business units or job functions. Moreover, a bot is available round the clock and can be programmed to work on tasks of completely disparate nature by scheduling its runs. Multiple bots can also be deployed to work in parallel or in tandem, to get the biggest bang for your buck!
As capabilities of robots scale new heights dovetailed with investments in developing increasingly secure and smarter AI and machine learning platforms, our level of trust in these machines continues to grow proportionately. Tesla’s self-driving cars and Google’s driverless car project ‘Waymo’ are real life, and perhaps the biggest, symbols of this. If you think about it, it is a robot in the shape of a car. Even though it looks way different than conventional robots (the ones with arms and all), it has all the functional characteristics of one. Several auto manufacturers are trying to bring in at least some flavor of robotics in their cars. More than adding to the enriched driving experience or comfort, the idea here is to make these cars safer. Features such as dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure correction, forward collision avoidance, auto-parking assist, etc. are being made available in every day passenger cars through their Advanced Technology Package add-on. This is made possible by virtue of a powerful robotics system with sensors, radars, cameras and a software with ultra-fast real-time data processing capabilities integrated with the car’s powertrain.
Let me explain with dynamic radar cruise control as an example. While this feature is engaged, if the vehicle in front slows down, sensors send a signal that physically depresses the brake pedal. This reduces your car’s speed to maintain a safe distance from the deaccelerating vehicle in front of it. If this vehicle increases speed again or gets out of the way, the same set of sensors send another signal, but this time to the gas pedal thereby automatically accelerating your car to match the speed that was initially set on cruise control. The system basically replicates what we (as human drivers) would do in a similar situation and makes driving less stressful, and safer. Well, this robot always has its eyes on the road!
Inventors are getting creative with robotic automation trying to introduce it in our daily chores so that we can reap the benefits every single moment. Floor cleaning robots, such as iRobot, vacuum and mop meticulously covering each area smartly avoiding smashing into walls, furniture, pets and of course us! Companies like Samsung have even come up with sophisticated versions of these appliances that can be controlled with an app on your phone. Chongqing supermarket in China introduced robotic shopping carts. The cart syncs with a smart phone and follows the shopper around the market. It not only saves them the hassle of pushing things around but also helps them locate stuff! This robotic cart even detects other shoppers and carts en-route and politely finds its way around them. Walmart is evaluating a prototype for a similar robotic cart. The point is, opportunities for automation are endless with the help of robotics. And engineers are leaving no stone unturned!
The Road Ahead
It is almost impossible to ignore robots these days. They are omnipresent in a multitude of shapes and forms. The truth is, we co-exist with robots, at times not realizing how important they are. Today, robotics cannot be seen in isolation. The world of robots, or “our world of robots” so to speak, is being made more and more exciting by other technologies that make them look good. As Elon Musk (Founder and CEO, Tesla Inc and SpaceX) once quoted, “When somebody has a breakthrough innovation, it is rarely one little thing. It’s usually a whole bunch of things that collectively amount to a huge innovation.” As quite a few technology leaders prudently envision, this is an area of innovation that is in its purple patch and it truly deserves to be there! This is going to stay and grow helping businesses achieve more in years to follow.
In this article, I tried to gather my outlook and observations on this topic and collectively present them. This might not come across as a totally technical manuscript about implementing robotics, and that’s intentional. The aim here was to jot down experiences that prove how robots have become an integral part of our lives, and that of a larger spectrum we deal with, but go unnoticed on many occasions because we fail to comprehend their importance. If you are equally passionate about this subject and would like to have a discussion, then send me an email at Manish_Naik@infosys.com and I would be happy to chat. Also, please share your feedback / questions in the comments section or via email.
“See things in the present, even if they are in the future.”
– Larry Ellison (Co-founder, Executive Chairman and CTO, Oracle Corporation)