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Undreamt of Possibilities

Arthur Pease, Executive Editor, Pictures of the Future | May 16, 2016
Siemens' research laboratories are sprouting spiders that can work together, hands that move like those of humans, and arms that can, without programming, independently determine how to pick up a given object. What these projects have in common - and what we portend for the future - may well turn out to be the most fundamental change ever witnessed in industry: the birth of autonomous machines.

lab, "machine learning will be used to train robots to recognize increasingly complex commands expressed by gestures, assign high level tasks, and teach robots new skills."

Meanwhile, approaching robotic hands from a hardware point of view, another group of CT researchers has developed a technology that brings what until now have been called "grippers" closer than ever before to achieving human-like sensitivity and flexibility. Key to this is a new wire-based linear actuator system that has made it possible to develop a robotic hand that has four fingers, a wrist, and 20 degrees of freedom, which collectively mimic all of the grasping motions of the human hand.

Retrieving Books and Building Ships

Tomorrow's robots will come in all shapes and sizes, and their duties will be as different from one another as retrieving rarely ordered books from the outer reaches of logistics warehouses to collaboratively building the hulls of ships using additive manufacturing. For instance, the spider-like bots now being developed at CT in Princeton, New Jersey are essentially fully autonomous additive manufacturing devices with legs. Using onboard cameras and a laser scanner to interpret its immediate environment, each robot autonomously works out which part of an area it can cover, while other robots use the same technique to cover adjacent areas, thus ensuring that no areas are missed.

Invisible Robots

Generally, when most of us think of autonomous systems, we tend to think of robots. But then again, what is a robot? As ETH Zurich's Prof. Siegwart points out, "At some point we will be surrounded by robots but will not realize that that is what they are." Autonomous cars will be the ultimate example of this. But many other systems will qualify, including themachines that build our infrastructures, not to mention the buildings, campuses and cities that will autonomously optimize countless energy management, traffic, and security-related functions in real time.

Limitless Individuality

Looking further ahead, given the game-changing economic potential offered by autonomous systems, the appearance of our homes and cities may be transformed. The drab sameness that characterizes everything from today's furniture and vehicles to our homes and office buildings could give way to a world of limitless individuality. "One of the big trends that autonomous systems will usher in," says Siegwart, "-and this links with 3D printing and flexible manufacturing - is the ability to economically introduce individuality to all sorts of things. Today, that is just not done because robots have to be painstakingly reprogrammed for each and every task. But as robots become more flexible, we will be able to use them for a greater variety of tasks."

All of this is of course not to say that automation will become so powerful that people will be driven off construction sites and out of factories any time soon.  As Siemens' electronics factory in Amberg, Germany, illustrates, steady modernization has not resulted in any workforce reductions - even as the plant's production volume has increased eight-fold and its error rate has remained at record low levels. Instead, what experts foresee is the evolution of environments in which humans and robots will work ever more closely together.


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