The human-robot relationship started with humans very much in charge. Early industrial robots were big, bulky machines doing dirty, risky work too dangerous for humans. They took hours to programme and stuck to one task.

Now it’s a more equal relationship. The idea of collaboration between humans and robots is a reality.

Smaller, lighter and free from the cages or guards that protected workers from earlier models’ heavy, swinging arms, co-bots are a different breed. Built-in sensitivity means the co-bot stops working the instant it senses unfamiliar resistance. All this opens up the potential for close working, with minimal danger of injury.

With the distance between human and robot shrunk, they can share tasks, side-by-side on the factory, warehouse or shop floor.

Playing to their strengths

In true collaborative style, these new machines and humans play to their individual strengths. Co-bots do the endlessly-repetitive tasks that might leave a human joint aching or injured with constant, awkward twisting, turning and lifting. The human takes care of higher-skilled, unpredictable tasks requiring more brains than muscles.

Awareness of each other includes the programming behind the co-bot. Instead of lengthy code writing, this new generation is quickly ‘trained’ by being manipulated through the task. Thus rehearsed, the robot can begin its work and, if required, be just as easily adapted to any changes.

Expressive interface

One key to even better collaboration between humans and robots might be to give the latter more human traits. One example from Boston’s ReThink Robots gives the robot a cartoonish ‘face’ with movable eyes on a screen. Since humans tend to look towards an object before engaging with it, the eyes’ movements give the robot’s collaborator a clue as to what the robot is doing next.

Thinking cap

At MIT, they are attempting something more dramatic: robot mind-reading.

Their experiments attempt to share brain signals between human and robot via an EEG monitoring cap on the former’s head. Providing clues to when the human has made a mistake, for example, so the robot can intervene.

What does all this mean for business? In general, with co-bot prices coming down, more and more small and medium-sized businesses will be able to employ them, cutting costs, boosting productivity, and freeing workers for tasks where mental and physical agility are demanded.

“The combination of automation and artificial intelligence has led to co-operation between machine and human in the modern workplace being more symbiotic than ever before,” says Michael Drew, Partner and Head of the Technology practice at Odgers Berndtson.“It’s still very early in this evolution, but the movement towards coexistence with intelligent machines is gaining momentum.

“The modern workplace is changing, not overnight, but with growing momentum. We are already seeing it in areas of low-skilled manual labour. For example, companies like Amazon have all but automated the entire product distribution journey."

“Technology advancement is also gradually seeping into higher-skilled roles like contact centres. Software robots powered by artificial intelligence answer customer queries or problems without any form of human involvement.”

The 4th Industrial Revolution

“While many may fear these advancements and the impact on jobs, like the industrial revolutions of the past, IR4.0 will likely follow a similar path."

“When one job function disappears, another takes its place. As long as companies are both prepared and encouraged to reskill their workforce, and higher education can fill the pipeline of talent with the new skills needed, the job market will continue to sustain the population.”

Finally, recent research at BMW concluded that it was robot-human teams who came out on top compared to all-robot or all-human teams. Long live collaboration, it seems.

If you’re interested in what the Fourth Industrial Revolution means for business leadership models of the future, get in touch. Our specialists can help you find the leaders and managers to thrive in the face of change.

Read more about collaboration in the latest issue of OBSERVE, the Odgers Berndtson global insights magazine.

Photo: ABB.

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Michael Drew

Michael's expertise spans the technology and IT services sectors in both EMEA & Asia Pacific. During a 15 year career in executive search, he has partnered with high-growth software innovators and...

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