Robots are just here to help

But can we learn to trust them?

by Vasso Georgiou 

  

Some blame China for Covid-19, and perhaps that’s true: “May you live in interesting times” is an old Chinese proverb and our age is nothing if not interesting. Rapidly changing, unpredictable epochs always ask questions of science, and the one on everyone’s lips in the wake of this pandemic is how can robotics and automation help us?

This past year the economy has slowed, but robots, drones and automation of all kinds have bucked the trend. The number of industrial robots operating in factories around the world reached a record of 2.7 million, an increase of twelve per cent, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Moreover, the requirements for dealing with Covid-19 have spurred significant interest in robotics, especially in healthcare settings and supply chain applications.

The demand for face masks and other protective equipment has also soared, and currently demand for Covid-19 vaccines far outstrips supply. The need to respond to such demands has led to rapid advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence, with applications across many industries including inventory management, material handling and delivery.

It doesn’t sound very space-age, but one of the most obvious applications of robotics in response to the pandemic is the disinfection and cleaning of hospitals, public transport, airplanes, and other enclosed environments, using ultraviolet disinfection bots. Drones have been deployed too, taking advantage of their ability to cover large areas and navigate confined spaces. Cleaning, checking patients’ temperature, and assisting with vaccine distribution can now be done more safely with less human interaction.

One group grateful for the arrival of the robot army is medical professionals: the doctors, nurses and surgeons on the frontline of the Covid invasion. Right now, healthcare facilities take an all-hands-on-deck approach to treating patients with Covid-19. Had healthcare robotic solutions been available before the pandemic started, many more healthcare workers could have stepped out of reach of the virus.

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of automation and artificial intelligence, opening our eyes to their application elsewhere

For many of us, however, our idea of robots comes mainly from sci-fi, like R2-D2 from Star Wars. But in fact, robots are already here, making a big impact across a range of industries from healthcare and manufacturing to education and public safety. The companies investing most heavily in robotics have thrived in these turbulent times and attracted investment themselves. Take auto tech brands Luminar Technologies and Waymo, for example, both of which are attracting record levels of funding for their efforts to prepare for the post-Covid new normal. For decades, engineers and technicians have dreamt up cars that can drive autonomously and park themselves. It’s no longer science fiction, and following years of accelerating investment, autonomous driving is about to become commonplace.

And in some parts of America, and elsewhere, it’s already becoming a part of daily life. Autonomous delivery-vehicle provider Nuro cottoned on quickly to the benefits of contactless and driverless delivery in a world of physical distancing, and their tech is now being used to deliver groceries and medical supplies in California. A few states further east, KiwiBot’s autonomous delivery robots help deliver sanitary supplies and hygiene products in Denver, the capital of Colorado.

These are just a few examples of how – despite its challenges – the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of automation and artificial intelligence, opening our eyes to their application elsewhere. Robots are ready and willing, but the real challenge now for robotics manufacturers is educating their masters. Will consumers be receptive to their help in doing everyday tasks? Will we take a back seat and let them drive? Only time will tell.


Vasso Georgiou is Marketing Director at digital media agency Marketing Town


 

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