Don’t worry, robots aren’t coming to replace you. They’re coming to work with you. Cobots, or collaborative robots, are designed to work alongside people, whether they’re at the office, the operating room, the factory, or the kitchen.
Cobots come in all shapes and sizes, including Flippy, the burger-flipping cobot made by Miso Robotics, which is currently being tested by White Castle. Flippy uses artificial intelligence to decide when to flip a burger, and even works with the rest of the (human) staff. Flippy isn’t the only new one on the scene: The global cobot market was projected to be worth $1 billion in 2020. While most of us don’t work alongside them, many cobots are already here.
What are cobots?
Most cobots are made for repetitive mechanical tasks that humans find dull, much like what industrial robots are used for. Many cobots are smaller, less expensive versions designed to be used in close proximity to people. Unlike their larger counterparts, cobots don’t need complex programming, and they don’t pose any safety hazards in the workplace. Instead of doing the work for you, cobots are there to enhance workers’ abilities (speed, strength, consistency).
They may be smaller and cheaper than industrial robots, but cobots are smarter, too. Cobots are typically equipped with sensors to monitor their location as well as those around them.
Cobots aren’t just used in factories — AI bots have transformed many industries already. According to a 2018 Harvard Business Review survey, around 70% of knowledge workers say they’ll need reskilling to learn how to work with AI.
Which cobots have joined the workforce and who’s making them?
Aside from Flippy, cobots have joined several industries, including retail. Some cobots are currently doing over 11,000 hours of cleaning work a day in retail and industrial settings. The company behind them, Brain Corp, runs the technology that makes these machines more autonomous. In addition to cleaning, the cobots scan shelves to assist with restocking and collect valuable data (on things like square footage cleaned, hours of operation, and how many cleaning routes are executed over a designated period of time) for retailers .
Cobots are also used by doctors for complex procedures like laser eye surgery to eliminate the possibility of human error. Other cobots in hospitals could help with inputting patient records and other paperwork, freeing up doctors from busywork.
Then there’s AI, which impacts office workers more than anyone else. Artificial intelligence is assisting workers in everything from sales calls to chatbots that filter customer service requests. Just like hardware-based cobots, AI bots are designed to assist workers. In the future, there may be entire jobs dedicated to explaining the results of AI algorithms to non-tech-savvy executives. Most companies, however, will host training sessions when they implement new cobots, whether they’re AI software or a physical machine.
What’s in a name?
Critics have argued against using the word “robot” for its doom-and-gloom connotations — even the first use of the word, in a play by Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1920, described human-like thinking machines that try to take over the world. “Cobot” has a friendlier connotation than “robot”, some say. After all, they’re only here to help.