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OM in the News: Robots That Kill

June 20, 2014

robot cage“The Return of the Killer Robots”—sounds like the title of a bad sci-fi movie!  But The New York Times (June 17, 2014) reports the dangers that robots pose to the humans who work alongside them, documenting at least 33 workplace deaths and injuries in the U.S., a number may well understate the perils ahead.

Robots have long toiled alongside workers in factories and warehouses, where they load boxes with items ordered online, drill and weld car parts, or move food from one conveyor belt to the next.

Unlike today’s robots, which generally work in cages, the next generation will have much more autonomy and freedom to move on their own. “In order for robots to work more productively, they must escape from their cages and be able to work alongside people,” said one industry expert. “To achieve this goal safely, robots must become more like people. They must have eyes and a sense of touch, as well as the intelligence to use those senses.”

Until now, robots have largely been used in manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry. They have mostly been “dumb robots,” designed for repetitive tasks that are dirty, dangerous or dull. But the robots whose generation is being born today collaborate with humans and travel freely in open environments where people live and work. They are products of the declining cost of sensors and improved artificial intelligence algorithms in areas such as machine vision. The Baxter robot, which does repetitive jobs in workplaces like packaging small items, is designed to sense humans and stop before coming in contact with them. It also has a display screen that cues those who are nearby about what the robot is focusing on and planning to do next.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Describe some service applications of robots.

2. How are robots a part of Computer-Integrated Manufacturing (CIM), discussed in Chapter 7?

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