Meet Your New Lab Partner, the Robot

In the Brave New World of the Internet of Things, is there Room Left for Us Humans?


A New Robot Developed by EPFL Researchers, image by ScienceDaily
A New Robot Developed by EPFL Researchers, image by ScienceDaily


In recent weeks, we’ve taken a look at a wide range of new discoveries in scientific laboratories — ranging from drug discoveries from the pharmaceutical laboratory, high-performance thin film materials from the material science laboratory and new public health discoveries from epidemiological laboratories.

This week and next week we’ll take a look at new discoveries in the robotics research laboratory. Compared to scientific discoveries in other fields, such as new drug discovery or advances in materials science, there is something fundamentally different about how we feel about progress in robotics. It’s probably because robot technology can disrupt the way we think about ourselves as humans. We titled this article ‘Meet Your New Lab Partner, the Robot” not only becauseit’s a provocative headline, but it’s also a new workplace reality that’s looming on the horizon. We have to ask ourselves: as robots become more pervasive in the workplace, what’s our role?

Our Conflicted ‘Yin/Yang’ Attitude Toward Robots

One widely held view of robots is very positive. In this category, robots are a logical extension of traditional toolmaking — it’s said that what distinguishes humans from other animal species is we know how to make tools. Our long historical tradition of making highly-productive, labor-saving devices has led us, step-by-step, to the rise of our modern industrial society. And, as an industrialized society, we depend on tools and machines that can do things faster and more accurately than by hand.

We’re also fascinated by industrial technology: you don’t have to be a manufacturing guru or industrial engineer to be mesmerized by videos of beverage company assembly lines that fill countless bottles scooting along conveyor belts or videos of large textile power looms that weave bolts of cloth from long threads of cotton material. In this industrialized society world view, we see cute robots, like the Roomba vacuum cleaner robot, which sweeps our floors at home while we’re busy at the office.

The ‘Roomba’ type robot is not threatening to us at all. It just seems a baby step closer to a home robot like ‘Rosie the housekeeping Robot‘ from the animated television cartoon series The Jetsons.


Alternate View of Robot Technology: Darker, More Ominous

The alternative view we hold of robots is much darker and more ominous. Do our fears stem from the sinister world of science fiction where alien creatures land on Earth and take over our lives? Or perhaps we are afraid of robots of our own making, like the H.A.L. 9000 computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey.



Without question we live in a world where more and more of what used to be the stuff of science fiction is coming true. But why is a Roomba vacuum robot ‘cute’ and the fictional H.A.L. robot spacecraft computer, well, kind of creepy? Where do we draw the line? In the case of the H.A.L. computer, there’s an easy answer: the computer has taken it upon itself to decide if the astronauts on ‘his’ spacecraft live or die.

So maybe the answer is we cross the line from cute to threatening when we feel that machines have control over our lives. But is that true across the board? What about the flight computers that control modern fly-by-wire Boeing and Airbus jetliners? We know these computers make life or death decisions on our behalf every second we are in the air. Yet most people feel comfortable flying this way and the statistics show flying has becoming progressively safer as a result.

Our attitudes toward robots will become increasingly important as we consider what is our role as humans when we begin to work side-by-side with robots. Will we change them or will they change us? Let’s take a look at the recent burst of robotic technology news and ask some of these ethical and existential questions.


Look to the Skies: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Robot Drone with Wings!

Flying drones have made their mark as weapons of war, and they may never escape this association. Yet who has not dreamed of seeing first hand how the world appears to a bird flying over a park in the city? Helivu, a Montreal video company, uses drones to capture footage which would be impossible with a larger human piloted craft, like a helicopter.

Hollywood is eager to get permission to fly drones like this in the US to capture special effects footage for TV and movies. But drones also offer a practical solution to existing problems. Shown in the second half of the video is a very practical engineering role for drones: inspecting the condition of a bridge high up over the St. Laurence River. Ground-rules have to be set for the role of drones in aviation. In the past weeks there have been close calls where catastrophic accidents were narrowly averted as drones were found to be interfering with commercial aviation jet flyways in the New York City area and in Australia.

Question: Would You Fly in a Drone Airplane if the Pilot was on the Ground and Not in the Cockpit?

Our ideas of what’s ‘cute’ and what’s ‘creepy’ will be tested again as robotic technology advances. In the case of flying drones, once drones prove themselves, why couldn’t the pilot fly the drone aircraft from the ground? After all, this approach is standard operating procedure in military drones. Would you fly on such a plane? Looking further ahead — what if the drone passenger aircraft was only piloted by a machine? Would you board that aircraft? Probably not right now, but in a few years the idea may not seem so far fetched.


Is That a Butterfly or a Spy Camera With Wings?

Coming back to our question “cute” or “creepy”… How would you feel if you discovered the butterfly flying in your garden and around your house was actually an artificial flying spy drone equipped with video camera?


Both the U.S. military and Israeli Defense departments are rumored to be working on these projects. Cute no. Clever yes — and definitely very creepy.


Robot Flying Saucers in Development at NASA

More and more developments once found in the pages science fiction novels seems to be coming true… even flying saucers. NASA is reported to be testing a new-fangled robot spacecraft — the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) — whose landing configuration resembles a full scale flying saucer. Look for the test landing to happen in Hawaii either tomorrow (if the weather is good) or sometime in the coming week (if the weather is bad). You can watch it live on NASA television when it happens.


Catch Junk Flying in Space? There’s a Robot for That.

Robots are also being employed to solve a man-made problem: Junk in Space. Lockheed Martin has won a huge military contract to begin the process of cleaning up all the space junk that’s accumulated in the last 50 years. A robot that can catch objects traveling towards it at high speeds (see video below) might be a viable solution for ‘catching’ space junk.


Robot-Powered Driverless Cars? Creepy or Not?

If you drive a modern car, many of its key systems, including the power-train, brakes and steering are managed by a computer, whether you realize it or not. Computer security system experts are increasingly concerned that these systems could be vulnerable to hacking — as they were not initially envisioned as a comprehensive secure system with necessary built-in defenses required to defend against computer viruses or other intrusions.

Once these cars are connected to smart phones, there is potential for dangerous malware attacks, which could take over or disable some of the cars important safety systems, e.g. no brakes! Given the security experts’ alarm over existing automotive automation, what do you think about Google’s robot driverless car experiments? Maybe you’ve seen pictures of the cute Google car making its way about town; it doesn’t seem that threatening (its soft round design is on purpose of course!).


At the same time a different group has been testing a convoy of semi-trucks traveling across the Nevada desert at very high speeds. This close truck formation is only possible using robotic controls. What could possibly go wrong, wrong, wrong?


Robot Furniture in Your Living Room?

Perhaps no occupation or industry is immune from the invasion of robots–even our own here at Formaspace: the furniture industry. Another team of designers from the Biorobotics Laboratory at the Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EFPL) in Switzerland caught our attention last week. They announced a prototype design study of furniture made of robots that can reconfigure themselves for different uses.


We are excited by the possibilities. As you may know, we already manufacture many kinds of modular technical furniture — with motorized moving parts — used on factory productions lines and shipping and packing stations, for example.

We also sell many kinds of variable height industrial workbenches and tables that allow the user to select the perfect height for their stature. We’ve also created a very flexible executive conference room desk that opens up (like a pair of scissors) to provide better sight lines when viewing a large wall mounted video projection screen. So the possibility of robot furniture seems plausible to us. Kind of cute actually. Not creepy.


Next week we’ll continue our survey of advances from world of robotic research laboratories.

In the meantime, if you are a robotics laboratory engineer or designer, give us a call at 800.251.1505. We can definitely help you build a custom furniture solution for your laboratory, research facility, manufacturing facility or office. We look forward to finding out what you are working on and how we can help.


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