When investigating the rise of the robot in the cleanroom, we looked at the roots of automation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s second industrial revolution.
It got us thinking. What could be the future of robots in the cleanroom, in controlled environments, and in our everyday lives? Could they work hand-in-glove with humans and could automation be integrated into the kind of routine tasks we perform now without much thought?
We decided to peek into the near future by spotlighting a company using robot technology not only in its manufacturing standard operating procedures (SOP) but also inserting them into our lives.
The year is 2084 and a construction worker on a much-needed vacation takes a cab to a rendezvous. The taxi is driven by an automated human-like robot whose overly chipper and slightly sarcastic demeanor give away his robot origins even more than his angular, plasticised profile. Welcome to the Johnny Cab.
Now, let’s shift our timeframe again and blast further into the future. In 2263, cab driver Major Korben Dallas becomes the unwitting key figure in an epic battle of Good versus Evil. The outcome will determine the whole future of mankind.
Yes, these are Hollywood portrayals of putative science fictional futures. And interestingly, although the plots, timeframes, characters, and story arcs are very different from one another, movies like Total Recall and The Fifth Element (not to mention other iconic sci-fi classics such as Minority Report, I-Robot, Demolition Man, and The Sixth Day) share certain tropes, which position the narrative firmly in the future.
One of the most popular ideas is the automated or self-driving vehicle. Director Paul Verhoeven’s vision in Total Recall saw all Johnny Cabs equipped with a robot driver, which interacted with the passenger in a highly human way. In contrast, Luc Besson’s dystopian The Fifth Element used human drivers at the controls of the taxi, with an advanced, quasi-autonomous auto-pilot system commonly engaged.
But outside of Hollywood in our technologically advanced 21st century world, driverless automobiles remain a distant dream. Even as we pack ever-increasing numbers of cars onto our beleaguered freeways and highways each year, the vast majority of them still require a human driver at the wheel.
However, in 2010 Tesla purchased a property formerly belonging to General Motors and Toyota’s New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) in Fremont, California. This was inspired by founder Elon Musk’s other high profile project SpaceX, which proceeded to turn the 5.3 million square feet of manufacturing space into a world-class production center that looked to all intents and purposes like the inside of a laboratory.
The decision to create a bright, white, gigantic cleanroom was a deliberate one. This environment was shaped to build their Model S, the world’s first semi-autonomous car. It made a clear message, if it looks clean and feels clean, build quality will reflect that. In other words, for this ground-breaking vehicle, ultra performance and exquisite attention to detail were the name of the game inside Tesla’s enormous cleanroom.
An important part of this new environment was the incorporation of the now iconic red robots, which worked on the production line alongside human counterparts. Visually arresting against the clinical white sterility of the plant, the robots worked on tasks, which demanded the highest levels of quality assurance combined with precision and absolute efficiency. In such tasks, human operators could be prone to error or fatigue and if Tesla’s stock price was a metric, this proved to be a winning formula.
By 2014, Tesla moved another step closer to fully integrating robots with humans in its acquisition of a 431,000ft2 facility in Lathrop, California. Too small to be used for fuel cell production, the Lathrop site was permitted for machining and computer numeric control (CNC). These are machines, which perform precise, accurate, repeatable, and identical operations according to a pre-programmed algorithm.
In Tesla’s world, examples of tasks requiring CNC machine automation would include cutting, welding, 3D printing, hardening, drilling, assembly, or grinding.
But production automation is only part of the equation. Alongside a comparatively hefty price sticker, Tesla vehicles are famous for one thing, autonomy on the highway. In debuting the company’s first self-driving vehicle the Model S, Tesla vigorously marketed the technology, which used intelligent systems to auto-steer by reading lane markings and detecting proximal vehicles, to change lanes, parallel park, and ultimately to slow to a stop and flash its hazard lights if a problem is detected within the vehicle.
For the hundreds of thousands of drivers facing interminable daily freeway commutes, the ability to sit back, fingertips casually brushing the steering wheel, and allow the car to get you home sounds like a dream. But the reality is that this technology still has a long way to go.
In May 2016, the American media engaged in a feeding frenzy when the first autopilot death occurred. Joshua Brown of Canton was in the driver’s seat when his Tesla Model S plowed into a tractor-trailer, which had made a left turn into his path. It appears the car’s sensor failed to detect the white-sided obstacle against a bright sky and did not apply the brakes. Tragically, Tesla devotee and evangelist Brown died at the scene.
In the aftermath, the New York Times labeled the incident a wake-up call for the self-driving industry and Fortune alleged Tesla and founder Elon Musk misled shareholders and the public about the role this technology played in the accident. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an inquiry, Tesla’s stock price took a (very) temporary nosedive, and many otherwise thoughtful observers managed to completely miss the point.
According to Musk’s figures, Brown’s death was the first in more than 130 million autopilot-engaged miles. As drivers, we have the wrong idea about this kind of technology. We romanticise the futuristic vision of the autonomous vehicle conjured by the story-tellers in Hollywood where there is no direct control. But the reality is driverless cars are only semi-autonomous, which is crucially important.
As advanced as Tesla, Google, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Audi, Bosch, and Apple’s are, the cars still need a human to oversee driving. Tesla’s own instructions for the Model S are that drivers should keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
If robots and automation are to be as successful in our everyday lives as they are becoming within the cleanroom and manufacturing environments, we need to re-frame our perspective. In the airline industry it is widely acknowledged a public misperception exists regarding the role of autopilot in commercial aviation. In his engaging blog Ask the Pilot, active airline pilot Captain Patrick Smith draws a clear distinction between automated and human capabilities.
He says: "Essentially, high-tech cockpit equipment assists pilots in the way that high-tech medical equipment assists physicians and surgeons. It has vastly improved their capabilities, but it by no means diminishes the experience and skill required to perform at that level and has not come remotely close to rendering them redundant. A plane is as able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself."
Robot automation will never replace human intelligence. We can never cede our own personal responsibility to sensors and algorithms, programs and logic. We may be able to shift some of our tasks to automation whether in the laboratory, the cleanroom, or the driver’s seat, but while embracing the possibilities of this new technology we must recognise its current limitations.
As Smith concludes, we do not have to be "against the advance of technology [merely] against foolish extrapolations of it."