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Technology acts as a double-edged sword. At one end, innovation can increase efficiency and offer opportunities otherwise unobtainable, but with each advancement in automation, the future begins to question the human's role in the workforce.

At ESC recently held in Boston, this very topic was covered in the panel discussion entitled, "The Extinction of the Human Worker?—The Future Role of Collaborative Robots in Smart Manufacturing."

Moderated by Chris Wiltz, Managing Editor, Design News (UBM), four panelists took to the stage to discuss the collaborative robot's role in the working world: Jeannie Joshi, Director, Joshi Design; Willem Sundblad, CEO & Founder, Oden Technologies; Ryan Weaver, Manager—Robotics, Axis New England; and Daniel Theobald, Co-founder and CIO, Vecna.

The panel kicked off with the basic definition of a collaborative robot. "It's any robot that is designed to work in a shared workspace with a human. By definition, a human has to be used in the process for it to be considered collaborative," says Weaver.

Collaborative robots are a natural progression, but humans must still be kept in the loop, says Sundblad. Artificial intelligence (AI) is still far away from solving tasks the irrational human brain can solve.

The discussion shifted as Wiltz asked the panelists, "What's the perception of a human worker? How are the workers responding to the robot?"

"Workers look at it more as a tool. They teach robots a task, apply it, and work on it safely," says Weaver. It splits the work between human and machine. A technician is no longer just a technician, but now doubles as a robot programmer. "There has been a surprisingly positive response. They look at it as any other tool they're using," Weaver adds.

According to Sundblad, collaborative robots take away repetitive, boring tasks, which shifts the perspective from threatening to a worker's best friend. They help the worker perform their job better, achieve more, while saving energy and time. There's "fear at first" but soon they realize "this is an empowerment tool." 

"Automation is necessary to compete" from a business standpoint, and without it, a company "unlikely will meet customers' demands," states Theobald. Organizations that use the new technology available will likely have more vibrant economies, more jobs, and offer true rivalry to their competitors.

Joshi, contributing a designer's perspective, mentions that perhaps there will be no graphic designers by 2030. It all really comes down to perception and problem solving being more defined. As we advance automation, it's really a "race to understand ourselves," Joshi adds. We're teaching these machines what we already know how to do.

The panel then dove into the heart of the matter: What is the future of the human worker, and the relationship between man and machine?

Sundblad began by saying that collaborative robots will not do everything. If you have a very intuitive design, and it's easy to use for assisting teams, then a low-skill operator can act like a material science Ph.D. Humans are important to the industry ecosystem, since we're still building products for people. However, manufactures must adopt intuitive interfaces or training programs, or the system will not work.

"In some ways, the media and marketing is further ahead of where technology is on the factory floor," Weaver remarks. When teaching a robot, there's still a lot of programming that needs to be done, however, in 10 years' time, the robots may adopt a "more show me than tell me" learning capability.

The panel concluded with the following predictions for the future: As jobs take away monotonous tasks, they will increase the human worker's day-to-day complexity. People will have to do more skilled functions as machines take over the mundane. Overall, algorithms and humans work better together than as separate entities. Robots are a powerful tool to make everyone stronger and create more promising opportunities for society.

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