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What an Autonomous Robot Can and Can’t Do

Autonomous robots can perform varied tasks in a flexible, responsive manner with limited human oversight. New forms of walking, lifting and rolling robots as well as improvements to traditional industrial robots all make these systems more flexible and adaptable – particularly in unstructured environments. These new capabilities – whether it’s in remote inspection, materials handling, delivery services or manufacturing processes – all enable robots to limit the need for humans to execute dangerous, dull, and sometimes even deadly tasks.

This is particularly important because, as it happens, skilled labor is in ever shorter supply. The world is going through a first-of-its-kind “demographic inversion” which actually limits the availability of labor for a variety of traditionally human-led jobs. While people can be more picky in the roles they choose to perform, robots are even more necessary to execute the basic jobs upon which our economy and high standards of living depend. 

If you’re thinking about how to contextualize autonomous robots in your own work environment, here are a few CANs and CANTs to guide you. As in all things AI, autonomous robots can cause our imaginations to run away with us, but with the right references, we can bring things a little more down to earth (and explore the practical benefits)!

CAN DO: Help With Repeatable Tasks

Robots have always been best suited to helping with repeatable tasks. Autonomous robots serve the same function, but in a broader array of circumstances. Why is this the case? Traditional robots require extensive planning, programming and fixed environments to ensure that everything can be done as predictably as possible. 

This simply hasn’t been useful outside of mass manufacturing, logistics and research facilities. With autonomy robots will begin appearing in more everyday environments – as well as in more places within those manufacturing, logistics and research facilities! This is possible because autonomous robots generally have the ability to perceive their environment and use pre-developed strategies to “program” themselves towards a goal, while taking into account obstacles, safety concerns and their own constraints (everything from joint rotations to battery power). 

Because of this level of flexibility, manufacturers with highly varied applications, warehouses that serve a variety of consumer needs and service businesses that require deliveries or transportation out on busy and unpredictable streets will all benefit from a new wave of robotic autonomy. 

CAN’T DO: Set Their Own Goals

We’re not philosophers, but the ability of humans to dream up objectives, set goals or even invent ideologies is usually considered as a consequence of evolution or our own sensory mechanisms. Whether a divine hand was involved is another story entirely, but when we think about the “evolution” of autonomous robots certainly hasn’t been guided by gods, but at the same time, they simply haven’t been built to think abstractly about their own goals and motivations.

Ultimately, robots need goals set for them, which disregards the “AI super predator” dystopian future scenario almost entirely. While it’s conceivable that an engineer or scientist could attempt to build this sort of consciousness, we don’t even understand how this consciousness works in humans – so how would it be possible to then replicate it in robots? 

While advances in neuroscience are coming fast and furious, you can probably rest assured that your autonomous robots will still need some everlasting guidance within your lifetime and far beyond. 

CAN DO: Respond to Unstructured Stimuli

With the process models and behavioral frameworks used by autonomous robots, various kinds of sensory data can be accounted for. Whether it’s visual, auditory or data connected to the robot from the environment around them (hello, IoT), there is potential for unexpected surges of data to occur within the framework of whatever a robot can functionally interpret. In this circumstance, the architecture of a robot’s processing capabilities must be adapted to account for the possibility of unexpected inputs, however this doesn’t mean that responding to those inputs is impossible. 

In fact, it is mostly what autonomous robots must be used for. While a certain predictability is still required for them to function, we know that certain edge cases or tasks may be even more complex. In these circumstances, robots that can respond to different shapes, orientations, tasks and recognizable objects can do so in a hierarchical fashion, meaning it can address increased complexity without a concomitant increase in processing complexity. Ultimately, circumstances where the human eye may not be entirely reliable could prove exceedingly efficient with autonomous robots. 

CAN’T DO: Work Outside Process Models

Ultimately, process models are there to keep robots on task and limit the need to optimize them whenever a new surprise comes up. If a robot does achieve a useful goal outside of a pre-defined process model, however, that success is simply a matter of coincidence – it’s no indication that the robot is thinking for itself. 

Autonomous robots function autonomously – that does not mean they’ll invent a new form of poetry and buy you a bagel every morning, unless of course that is what you design them to do. One day, robots may design themselves. Until then, take solace in the fact that they can offer 10 to 1, or even 100 to 1 payback on tasks that people simply don’t like doing. 

CAN DO: Create More and More Attractive Jobs

There are two problems in the world today: a changing environment, and human demographics that simply don’t allow us to rapidly adapt. We are older, a little weaker and less skilled than we used to be, while large-scale challenges and an essential re-invention of how our society actually works is needed to maintain a high standard of living without offloading work onto increasingly vulnerable populations. 

The usual wrap on robots here is that they kill jobs. While this could possibly be true if you think about assembly lines where humans are swapped out for robots, the truth is most robots will not be added here, but rather in more unstructured environments and towards tasks which are relatively unproductive for the ingenuity and creativity of most humans. Once cost effective autonomous robot applications come online, most of them will work within bottlenecks, freeing up humans and actually creating new kinds of jobs, and even creating more of them according to Statistics Canada.

CAN’T DO: Take Over the World

Taking over the world requires the motivation to do so. While that can be vanity, greed, resentment or any number of emotional triggers at its core, an autonomous robot (or robot army, as it were) would only take over the world if it was modelled to do so, and ultimately would only do that at the “behest” of somebody. That’s why working groups like those on autonomous military robots are so important, however the fact remains – robots will never take over the world on their own accord alone, which means that accountability is always necessary for the human actors who might use them to malevolent ends. 

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

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