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Robotics myth-busting

Robotics Myth-busting: From Science Fiction to the DC

Matt Wicks

Robotics Myth-busting: From Science Fiction to the DC

Science fiction often teases us with the technology of tomorrow, providing glimpses into what transportation, communication and work will look like for future generations. However, writers don’t always get it right. If they did, we would be driving flying hovercrafts on Mars, communicating telepathically and learning languages via brain implants.  

Suffice it to say, pop culture can propagate myths almost as well as it can predict the future. This is especially true for robotics, as the novelty of science fiction fades in favor of real solutions for routine work functions. 

According to MHI Roadmap 2.0, most warehouses will rely on robotic automation in the not too distant future; however, what this transformation looks like in the real world is a far cry from the sensationalism of pop culture. As such, we’re here to set the record straight about robots in the real world — Mythbusters-style.

I’m afraid I can't do that, Dave

Take artificial intelligence, for instance. In HBO’s “Westworld” or Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” humanoid AI robots or “supercomputers” convincingly imitate people and become "smarter" through learned experience. Eventually these sentient robots are capable of fully-autonomous decision making, such as deploying complex plots to overtake their human creators. 

In reality, artificial intelligence is not scary. Machine learning makes automation more effective, independent and ultimately more valuable to end users. In the distribution center, artificial intelligence uses a combination of sensors, data science and vision systems to “teach” a robot how to do certain tasks. Rather than reprogramming the robot to handle new products or tasks, the system can leverage its own prior experiences to adapt to new challenges in dynamic, unstructured environments like the DC. In the era of e-commerce, this is a much-needed competitive advantage to any automation investment.

Autobots, roll out

Another infamous Hollywood trope is the robot as a job-stealing menace. In Transformers, even the job of saving the world is outsourced to robots. But evidence to support the robotic employment overhaul just isn’t there. 

Since the recession in 2008, adoption of industrial robots has increased dramatically in the U.S., according to statistics from the Robotic Industries Association. But during this period of high robotics growth, unemployment has also fallen substantially. According to a paper published by two economists—Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University—the number of Americans employed in the manufacturing realm actually increased last year. 

Oh, behave!

Remember the fembots from Austin Powers? Pretty groovy … until they turn on our favorite bumbling British superspy in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” The idea of human-like robots has experienced a resurgence since the days of Dr. Evil, thanks to recent viral videos depicting robots jumping, spinning and doing backflips. Just don’t expect to see robots doing parkour through pick aisles any time soon. 

Instead, consider humans working alongside collaborative robots in a “cobotics” workflow. Mobile robots are a good example for the DC. They interface directly with humans, handling certain tasks like point-to-point load transportation to help their human counterparts work as efficiently as possible. Mobile robotics handle the repetitive, more basic task while allowing workers to focus on more involved tasks, like picking and putaway, each playing to their strengths.

It’s important to separate these facts from fiction. Make no mistake, the robots are coming. That’s why it’s more important now than ever before to separate fact from fiction and manage expectations in the DC and beyond. Trust reputable integrators, certified industry experts, trade journals and academic leaders, like our collaborators at Carnegie Mellon