Working with robots: the future of collaborationMillions of years ago, in prehistoric Africa an early human picked up a stone and used it as a hammer. And so the first tool was born. Today, in China, Zi Jian and his team have taken the next evolutionary step: through simple hand gestures they’ve taught robots to use tools for us.
Imagine a world where robots and humans work side-by-side. Where you can command a robot to lift a box or pass a tool with absolute precision, using a simple hand gesture. Where the learning ability of humans and the accuracy and strength of robots work in harmony to make our lives easier, safer and richer.
That’s the vision of Zi Jian and his colleagues, a pioneering team researching and testing technologies for the future of manufacturing, as part of the Siemens ‘Autonomous Systems Revolution’ Project.
Hard at work at a lab in bustling Beijing, this world-class team are building a tool that lets humans and robots communicate. It has no keyboard and there isn’t a touchscreen in sight. But with leading-edge thinking and smart technology they’ve opened up a channel of communication between man and machine.
Augmenting the human
Like most children, Zi Jian loved robots, but what started out as a childhood hobby stayed with him throughout college and his PhD, when he took robotics classes in his free time. It wasn’t until he joined Siemens that he had the chance to work with a real robot. Zi Jian’s childhood passion became his profession.
For just over a year, Zi Jian has been working on the data glove, a tool that allows a person to control and command a robotic arm. Using different sensors, the glove captures and translates the movements and gestures of human hands – and, someday soon, their exact pressure levels – into actions that are performed by the hand of a robot. Through this clever mechanism a human can command a robot to pick up heavy objects, hand over tools and components, or assist in assembling parts of a product.
There is fierce debate as to whether robots will replace human jobs, effectively making us redundant. But Zi Jian sees a future where humans and robots work in harmony. Where robots can be trained by their human co-workers to perform tasks that are dull, dangerous, or for which they are stronger or better equipped to carry out.
I’ve been interested in robots since childhood. Finally, I got the chance to deal with a real robot at Siemens. That’s why I joined.Dr. Wang Zi Jian, Expert Research Scientist
Pressure sensors on the tip of the robot’s hand send feedback to the person wearing the glove, so touching an object through a robot’s hand will feel the same as if you were touching it yourself. And so the intelligence and decision-making powers of humans are matched by the strength and precision of robots, allowing for ever more complex, delicate and exciting possibilities.
Using gesture-based interactions, a car manufacturing worker will be able to direct a machine to assemble a car, sensing and feeling each part as if it were in their hands. Cumbersome, strenuous work will be carried out with grace, ease and efficiency by our robot co-workers.
“Once this channel of communication has been opened, it can be used to control anything you want.” From robots that are trained to assist neurosurgeons during complicated brain surgery, to factory robots that take on the lifting and mixing of chemicals in a factory – vital tasks that can be hazardous to humans. The opportunities for human-robot collaboration are endless.
One small gesture for man
“Eventually robots will be able to understand human intention,” says Zi Jian. If someone falls in the workplace a robot will be able to recognize they need help and come to their aide. Or if someone drops a tool the robot will be able to pick it up and hand it back, without being asked to.”
In the distant future, 50 years away or more, Zi Jian imagines an even more intuitive human-robot interaction. Robots will receive commands directly from human minds, creating a truly unique collaborative partnership. “You want the robot to fetch you a tool? You just think about it.”
“There are currently many industrial robots in factories, most of them working alone, locked in some kind of cage.” But with passion and innovation Zi Jian has opened the door, bringing humans and robots that much closer. One small gesture for robots, one giant leap for mankind.
The main purpose of the data glove is to function as an interaction, so when the robot is working by the side of the human, the human can communicate with the robot.