Robots and Transformation

If you’ve been kicking around this industry for a long time, you get the opportunity to meet some people who are now the stuff of legend. One of those people that I’d had the chance to meet and talk with was Joseph F. Engelberger, who passed in 2015. Engelberger is considered “the father of industrial robots,” largely because of the robot company that he and George Devol established, Unimation. (Devol is arguably the Steve Wozniak of this pair.) The auto industry was instrumental in the deployment of robots to do things ranging from die casting to spot welding, deployments which helped create the robotics industry. If you look at the early Unimates they resembled military tank turrets, with an arm sticking out of a blocky structure, which is in vast contrast to the designs of contemporary robots which have more human-like articulation.

Engelberger’s promotion and support of industrial robots led to the creation of the Joseph F. Engelberger Awards by the Robotic Industries Association (robotics.org). The first was presented in 1977. The objective of the awards is to acknowledge those who have made distinctive contributions to technology development, applications, education and leadership in the robotics industry. Perhaps it is a matter of perspective, but when I think about “industrial robots” I still think of things like applications in factories and warehouses and the like, arms lifting, moving, assembling, welding, painting, gluing, etc.

So I was a bit surprised to learn that the 2017 Engelberger Robotics Award will be presented to Dr. Gill Pratt, Chief Executive Officer of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), and Dr. Daniela Rus, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While I don’t know Dr. Rus, I have had the honor of meeting and talking with Dr. Pratt. Their work in robotics goes far beyond arms lifting, moving, etc. In the case of Dr. Pratt and TRI, it is largely about not automating factories as much as it is automating vehicles (a.k.a., autonomous driving). 

Coincident with learning about these Engelberger honorees, I learned of an effort being undertaken by Honda R&D, a subsidiary of Honda Motor Co., in Japan. They are establishing what they’re calling “R&D Center X.” It is worth quoting the company’s description of what it will be doing:

“Initially, R&D Center X will focus on research of autonomously operated machines and systems, such as robotics technologies and mobility systems, which will be collectively called ‘robotics.’ The concept of robotics includes energy management, which is necessary to power robots and mobility systems. Moreover, as a fundamental technology of robotics, R&D Center X will conduct research into technologies that lead to ‘artificial intelligence that works cooperatively with people.’”

The AI working cooperatively with people is not just something that's going to happen in factories, but spills over into automated driving.

What’s interesting to note about TRI and R&D Center X is that these are examples of “automobile companies” going far beyond what one might ordinarily associate with what an automobile does. Those activities are, by and large, the sorts of things that industrial robots assist in doing, whether it is handling stamping out of a press or manipulating parts for machining or wielding a laser scanner for metrology or welding parts together and then painting the final product.

To be sure, car companies have to be really, really good at those things. But those things are no longer enough. They are only part of what is becoming a highly competitive arena, the automation of those vehicles. When you think of an automated car, chances are you’re not imagining some sort of anthropomorphic robot sitting behind the wheel. Rather, it is simply a case of that spot that might otherwise be used by a person sitting empty, or someone sitting in that spot reading a Kindle or something. The wheel turns by itself and the pedals are seemingly self-actuated. But be that as it may, there are still robotic operations, in effect, taking place.

Which is what Dr. Pratt and his colleagues at TRI as well as R&D Center X personnel including adviser Dr. Edward A. Feigenbaum, AI expert from Stanford University, are pursuing. And there are analogous activities going on at General Motors and Ford and essentially every other global automotive manufacturing company—to say nothing of the Next-Gen companies, be they Tesla or something far more nascent.

The point is simply this: There are some people—people in the industry—who still think about the auto industry in a way that I think about industrial robots. It isn’t wrong. But it is woefully insufficient.