The final panel, moderated by Tilak Agerwala, formerly of IBM, focused on the human-technology frontier. It opened with a presentation by Fay Cook of the National Science Foundation (NSF), who spoke about work at the human-technology frontier. “We are on the cusp of major transformations in work and the workplace driven by new and emerging technologies—artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things, and many others,” said Cook. “This transformation is going to change the way we produce goods, provide services, and collaborate with our colleagues.” Cook identified three thematic areas in which NSF is proposing to support research: (1) studies to understand the benefits as well as the risks of new technologies; (2) investments to develop technologies that enrich the lives of people in the workplaces of the future and to improve workplace efficiency, labor productivity, and economic growth; and (3) resources to support the education and lifelong learning of tomorrow’s workforce. “Let’s imagine the workplace of tomorrow,” said Cook. “It will be a collaboration among humans and machines and cyberspace. Humans, working with smart technologies that can identify our needs, synthesize and analyze lots of data, and then respond appropriately to improve manufacturing, provide services, and enable teamwork. It might be an actual physical space or it might be a virtual workplace in which we are all interacting wirelessly from remote locations.”
For Cook, first understanding human-technology interactions—how we influence technology and how that technology influences us—is a key enabling component of the optimized workplace of the future. Second, it is critical to create systems that are tailored, optimized, and continuously adapted for humans. And third, given the rapid pace of technological change, continuing education and lifelong learning will be critical to create a workforce that will succeed in the new workplace. “To get there, we envision a framework of use-inspired research in various work contexts, such as advanced manufacturing, health care, and learning environments. And underpinning that will be research foundations in artificial intelligence, cyber-physical and cyber-human systems; and education and discipline-specific learning; and social and behavioral sciences,” she explained.
Cook spoke about the partnerships that NSF sees as necessary to enable this future, which, she noted, are the very types of partnerships that GUIRR works to establish. Industry conducts a tremendous amount of research to develop the technologies discussed and to train the workforce; universities are in the business of research and education in all disciplines; and government agencies provide the funding for basic and applied research.
Larry Sweet of the Georgia Institute of Technology spoke next on the future of collaborative robotic manufacturing. Sweet opened by citing a McKinsey & Company forecast that suggested industrial robot use would have a cumulative annual growth rate of 10 percent or more over the next 10 years—a rate two to three times higher than it has been over the past two decades.
Sweet participated in a survey that asked 200 companies—from large manufacturers to small or medium sized businesses—what they hoped to get out of robotics over the next five to ten years. Encouragingly, over 90 percent of the survey respondents focused on robotics supporting business growth, rather than saving on direct labor; they sought automation to provide flexibility that allows them to make more diverse and more customized products. “They saw the potential to grow their businesses by 30-50 percent. This sounds like a lot,” said Sweet. “But I have personal experience in leading projects that led to gains in that range.”
The vast majority of collaborative robot applications deployed to date are sequential operations—the robot and the person are physically separated, with a buffer in between so that if either partner stops, the other can continue working. “Most people think of collaborative robots as robots that are human-safe—a robot that cannot cause a physical injury or pain,” said Sweet. “Where the big potential exists going forward is the human and the robot actually working together, so that they understand and trust what the other wants to do and have ways to communicate. This type of collaboration is in the research phase right now, but it will be key to realizing the full potential of these technologies.”
He closed by speaking about technology transfer and stressed that this technology requires innovators and technologists working in tandem with technology transfer experts, so that they really understand the requirements of the operating environment.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at The Fourth Industrial Revolution: proceedings of a workshop: in brief