For decades now, robots have been a part of the production line. However, it wasn’t until recently that they were kept away from humans due to safety reasons. They are either kept behind invisible fences or physical cages which when crossed act as a kill switch. Even with such precautionary measures, there still have been a number of accidents. Since 1979, robots have caused about 33 human fatalities in the US. In 2015, the life of a 22-year old worker at a Volkswagen plant in Germany was cut short when a robot he was working on moved without warning and crushed him against a metal plate.

Thanks to the introduction of collaborative robots also known as cobots, new age robotics can now be work collaboratively with humans. Not only are they smaller and cheaper, cobots are also more versatile than traditional manufacturing robots. They can be step up in just a few hours and switched between tasks in even less time. One major benefit of using a cobot is that it can help human workers with lifting heavy loads and take care of monotonous tasks. In addition, a cobot can be taught new skills by its human colleague by using its arms in the pattern that is desired.

The future of cobots

Analyst predict that in the next five years the market for cobots will witness a 40% per year growth with a potential of reaching over $4 billion by 2020. Cobots are expected to move beyond the factory setting and start providing assistance and support in both our homes and public spaces.

However, for this to happen, manufacturers and researchers of robotics need to make them more flexible, safer and better. To do that, collaborative robots need to be given the human touch.

Building trust between humans and cobots

In many factories where humans work collaboratively with robots, they give nicknames to their machine colleagues. For instance, there is a cobot in Belgium nicknamed Little Geert, after its human operator. In other factories, cobots are dressed up in the colors of the local sports teams. A video was released by Ford showing one of their cobots pouring itself a cup of coffee and joining its human colleagues for a refreshment during break.  

This kind of behavior is not unusual. Even though humans need some time to adjust, eventually they learn to trust their machine colleagues. The manufacturers of robotics are going to great lengths for the creation of a comfortable and conducive working relationship. This is the reason why some cobots have a face with a variety of emotions. For instance, such a cobot can express confusion if it needs human input when it can’t complete a task.

In addition, manufacturers are now creating cobots that have anticipatory artificial intelligence. This means that a cobot will be able to look towards an object it is about to reach out to with its arms just like a human would. This way, its human operator would easily know what to expect thus building trusts between him and the cobot.

Handshakes and high-fives

Teaching a robot any kind of physical interaction is quite complicated especially if you need them to transfer these newly learned skills to other tasks. An expert in robotics at Arizona State University is working on creating cobots that can learn from watching humans interact with each other. At the University of California at Los Angeles a similar project is underway and has taught Baxter to respond to high-fives, handshakes and other tasks that rely on the subtle variations of its human partner’s body position.

For robots to acquire the human touch, they need to master a plethora of subtle cues from body language. This is because such cues differ between individuals and across cultures. If they are going to be integrated into society, a cobot needs to quickly learn about the individual preferences of its human partner.

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