Things Robots Do Badly

Robots are not good at folding laundry, being charming (a valuable human skill that can’t easily be replaced by automation, according to a recent European study), or opening doors.

But these actions, while they may save some human jobs, are not the real obstacles to movie-style robot deployment.

The real problems with robots include moving around in the real world and getting enough energy to keep moving around. These are things that living creatures have gotten very good at over the millennia. Robots? Not so much.

Robots tasked with moving across any real-world terrain, including sidewalks, are inclined to fall over or get stuck. They get confused by visual input (that whole truck versus sky problem). They run out of fuel and stop.

Researchers are working on these things. One interesting experiment has robots attached to turtles. The robots are programmed to offer the turtles snacks, and the turtles have been trained to respond to these rewards.

Another experiment is using a brachiating robot (brachiators are creatures like monkeys and humans that can swing through trees) to swing through trees in agricultural settings. This robot, named Tarzan, has been designed to meet some very specific needs, but its makers hope that other applications will become clear as time goes on.

Other researchers are working on improving motion planning, something else that robots are bad at, while humans are excellent. Within a couple of years, pretty much all human babies figure out how to get around a space without running into things. Robots, on the other hand, need precisely programmed motion control systems, often with multiple servo motors, just to repeat the same identical motion. Other things, including people, have to stay out of their way.

Perhaps robots will, in the future, be able to roam around factories (possibly riding turtles) and fill in wherever anyone needs a hand, or at least an arm. Until then, rely on us to keep your Rexroth electric motion control in top shape.

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