What future awaits us? In twenty years’ time, will smart robots be assisting us with
all kinds of household chores? Will they be driving us around and taking work off our hands?
If anyone is qualified to speak on the subject, it is Prof. Robert Babuska, founder and Director of Research at the TU Delft Robotics Institute.
“I predict that robots will increasingly start doing the heavy and repetitive work in industry and agriculture”, says Babuska. “The kind of work that people shouldn’t do and makes them ill. We need to bring an end to that kind of work. Robots will also increasingly take on dangerous jobs. Inspecting fuel tanks, for example, or investigating the scene after a disaster.
And they will also play a major role in healthcare. Good healthcare enables people to live longer, in-cluding those suffering from disabilities. Self-driving robots and exoskeletons can make it easier for people with mobility problems to get around.”
So, robots will take people’s jobs? “No, I don’t think that will happen”, Babuska replies. “All of these robots will complement people. And these developments will not happen overnight, so society will have time to adapt.
In the short term, I expect to see increasing numbers of so-called collaborative robots. Robots like Baxter, which we use at TU Delft for certain research projects. Baxter is a robot whose arm you can grab and move. By doing this, you program it for that specific movement. These robots are inexpensive and can be used for a wide range of simple activities, such as screwing bolts or wrapping parcels.
In the medical world, developments are moving very slowly. Currently, therapeutic robots and exoskeletons often still contain motors in the hinges. These are large and heavy. I think we will need to develop artificial muscles.
At the moment, robots are mainly used in the automotive industry. The robots used are large, powerful machines that do repetitive actions with great precision. They have very little integrated dexterity, but are programmed for set movements.
As soon as you allow robots to operate in a world that changes, you bump into a variety of different problems. Take, for example, a robot that has to pick tomatoes. Every bunch has a slightly different shape. What is the best way to pick them? That will vary from case to case. And when is a tomato ripe? The robot will need to recognise that. There are all kinds of different things that cannot be pre-programmed completely. The robot needs to respond on the fly to its environment, which is not known in advance and may be dynamic. It is an enormous challenge to equip a robot brain for achieving that.”