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Human augmentation: the next phase in robotics

Tanya Blake

How technology and humans can augment each other’s unique capabilities to solve the world’s increasingly complex problems

Prominent, respected public figures including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have spoken about the dangers of the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, which at the very least could threaten thousands of jobs and at the most could pose an existential threat to the very survival of the human race.

However, Maurice Conti, director of director of applied research and innovation at software company Autodesk, does not take such a dark view of our future relationship with technology. In fact, he believes that smart software and robotics can augment the work that humans undertake, freeing us up to develop ever more creative solutions to life’s problems.

Conti says: “Rather than thinking about fully automating things that humans have traditionally done, there is another path that will happen in parallel. That path is putting technology and humans together so that they can achieve more than either could achieve on their own.”

He feels engineers, as professional problem solvers, will have better tools at their disposal to fix problems faster and be more creative.

Conti also believes that by working in harmony with smart computer software, which is more suited to analysing large, complex issues, we could actually come up with hitherto unthought-of of solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems.

“We barely understand what climate change is and its taken us a couple of decades to even be broadly aware of it, let alone how to solve it because it is such a complex system. There are so many things that are interrelated in very complex ways that we’re just not equipped to solve,” says Conti.

“We are going to be facing more and more of these problems and that is why I think this concept of augmentation – of using technology to augment our capabilities - is one answer to how we’re going to face our future.”

Augmentation in our midst

While many may not realise it, we already live with various kinds of augmentation in our daily lives. Smartphones provide us with instant access to information, a kind of cognitive augmentation.

In engineering, simulation software can automatically execute complex calculations on designs that an engineer has inputted. In the world of robotics, collaborative robots, or co-bots, are working alongside workers to manufacture products.

These are only the first steps says Conti.

Truly collaborative robots 

Autodesk’s applied research lab in San Francisco is currently developing robots that can do work that humans could never do and safer, more reactive industrial co-bots.

Conti says: “The greatest number of robots out there are industrial with multi access arms – it is an established platform. Unfortunately, they tend to be big and scary and dangerous so when we start to talk about getting humans closer to them and physically interacting with them there are some very serious safety concerns.”

These robots are in cages and will automatically stop if a human gets too near. Autodesk researchers are using technology from its media entertainment branch to resolve this.

A high performance capture system developed for James Cameron’s animated blockbuster Avatar is being integrated into robots. A demonstrator should be ready in 18 months.

The traditional approach to industrial robots, to control the real world around them so it can make a lot of assumptions, is difficult and expensive says Conti.Instead, Autodesk is developing a closed-loop feedback system that mimics the way humans are able to self-correct during movements to allow robots to work within greater margins of error.

 “We’re giving robotics sight with computer vision systems, and we’ll tell them roughly where the thing is so it doesn’t waste time looking randomly but it could be +/- 10mm and it has to figure it out on its own.

“It sounds pretty straightforward but is somewhat difficult to do. It could radically change engineering and manufacturing.”

While not everyone will share Conti’s cheery vision of a technologically augmented future, we can only hope that engineering and manufacturing firms choose to travel down its friendlier path rather than simply automating human jobs altogether. 


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