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You might have heard that a robot has mastered a task that most humans would happily dodge for a lifetime. Yes, a robot has successfully assembled a piece of IKEA flat-pack furniture, in quick time no less.
In April 2018, roboticists from a university in Singapore unveiled the product of three years’ slog – a pair of semi-autonomous robotic arms that can put together an IKEA chair in just 20 minutes.
While a fully automated version won’t be on the market any time soon (more’s the pity), the breakthrough does beg a few very important questions. Such as, what other tasks could robots potentially take off our very human hands in the future – and how could this dramatically change our lives?
Unless you’ve been following the world of robotics with a keen eye, you might be surprised at the various robotic feats already taking place.
Most of us are familiar with the sight of a Roomba robot vacuum (perhaps being ridden by a cat in a shark costume on YouTube), which can clean your floors while you sleep. That’s not forgetting robot lawnmowers, which sort your overgrown lawns out in a jiffy.
Dr Tim Wilkin, Associate Professor in Deakin’s School of Information Technology, says when it comes to robots, many people tend to think of them solely as taking over our jobs.
‘Companies like Amazon for example run whole warehouses with two or three staff,’ Dr Wilkin says. Then there’s Rio Tinto, who run almost entire mine operations in Australia autonomously.
However, Dr Wilkin says that most people don’t consider the positive flow-on effects, such as improved efficiency and safety. ‘If you can increase productivity in those sorts of ways, then you open up opportunities for more jobs.’
Robots are also being used in warfare – in the form of drones – and to reach other planets.
‘Most people think about robots as being things with wheels or things with legs, but an autonomous aircraft meets all of the same definitions as a robot,’ Dr Wilkin says.
Drones, while facing huge regulatory challenges, are also providing critical medical support, having executed blood deliveries between hospitals in Africa, for instance, he says. Robots are also being used to mix drinks, fill prescriptions, change your cat litter and spot sharks.
Even Deakin’s very own RIOT Lab has embraced the possibilities of how robotics can be harnessed. The lab is challenging traditional learning environments with a new approach to teaching both campus-based and cloud (online) students.
But it’s perhaps no surprise that Japan is home to the world’s first hotel staffed by robots. And if you should happen to come to an unfortunate end whilst visiting, you might even find yourself being farewelled by Pepper, a humanoid robot that can now be hired as a Buddhist priest for funerals.
'Most people think about robots as being things with wheels or things with legs, but an autonomous aircraft meets all of the same definitions as a robot.'
Dr Tim Wilkin,
School of Information Technology, Deakin University
Dr Wilkin says robots may eventually be completing tasks around the home, such as washing the dishes, popping food into the microwave or making cups of tea.
‘I saw a demo of a smart kitchen that basically had two robotic hands over the stove (for stirring),’ he says.
The key challenge now is creating robots that not only conduct predefined, repetitive tasks, such as in a car factory, but to reason and deal with more complicated environments such as people’s homes (and people themselves), Dr Wilkin says.
He anticipates that technology such as Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa may eventually be connected up to robots that would help manage our households.
Of course, it’s all down to what people can afford and are going to feel comfortable with, says Dr Wilkin, who predicts most people wouldn’t have a problem with a house that cleaned itself.
Another huge area of potential for robotics lies in the aged care industry. In this case, robots could be developed to look after and monitor elderly people, and perhaps even provide a form of companionship. Paro, a cute robot seal, has already proven a great comfort to dementia sufferers.
Dr Wilkin believes the biggest robotic revolution will be the widespread use of self-driving cars.
‘They are most definitely robots, they are just robots we happen to ride around in, and they are probably going to have the biggest impact on the world in the next 10 years,’ he says. ‘You can already go out and buy vehicles that have the capacity for full autonomy – it’s just not turned on.’
While self-driving cars have led to two deaths already in the US, Dr Wilkin believes such cars will eventually be widely accepted.
So, look out world, the robots are coming – and they might be pulling into your driveway soon.
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