The Future of Human-Robot Integration

Jeff Burnstein, President of Association for Advancing Automation, and Aaron Prather, Director of Robotics and Autonomous Systems Program at ASTM International, join Jeff Dance to discuss the future of human-robot integration. They cover topics such as job displacement fears, the importance of standards and safety, the potential for meaningful work in the future, and the exciting potential of robotics and AI in various industries and their integration with humans. Plus, we hear insights from Zeeshan Zia, CEO at Retrocausal and Jeff Soesbe, Senior Software Engineer, Robotics at Fresh Consulting.

Jeff Burnstein – 00:00:01: AI is another technology we’ve been talking about for four decades. Machines were going to be so much smarter than us and do all these things. It didn’t happen years ago, it’s starting to happen now. Similar kind of experience to robotics where things are really ramping.


Jeff Dance – 00:00:16: Welcome to The Future Of, a podcast by Fresh Consulting, where we discuss and learn about the future of different industries, markets, and technology verticals. Together, we’ll chat with leaders and experts in the field and discuss how we can shape the future human experience. I’m your host, Jeff Dance. In this episode of The Future Of podcast, we’re joined by automation expert, Jeff Burnstein, a legacy in the Robotics industry, also the president of the Association of Advancing Automation, A3, and we’re also joined by Aaron Prather, director of Robotics and automation systems program at ASTM to explore the future of human robot integration. Super excited about this topic. Thanks for joining us today.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:01:07: Happy to be here.


Jeff Dance – 00:01:09: For those who don’t know you, would you guys care to tell the listeners a little bit about yourself? Jeff, can we start with you?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:01:16: Sure. So, Jeff Burnstein, as you said, the president of the Association for Advancing Automation trade group that represents about 1200 companies around the world involved in Robotics and AI and machine vision and motion control and other automation technologies. I think that makes us the largest in the world actually for that segment of the automation world. I’ve been doing this for years now. So I had a front row to the development of the Robotics industry in particular. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m still enjoying it. So glad to be here talking with you and Aaron.


Jeff Dance – 00:01:51: Thank you, Aaron.


Aaron Prather – 00:01:53: Yeah, Aaron Prather, I’m the Director of Robotics and Autonomous Systems Programs here at ASTM International. We are a standards organization. It’s been around years. We’re born actually out of the railroad industry. And now we have about standards across industries. And my main focus is on Robotics and Autonomous Systems and how we support the industry and Jeff and a lot of his members through test and performance standards that could support those industries and just making sure that the products that the Robotics industry is producing are tested, they’re performing to certain standards and they’re supporting the safety standards that Jeff and his organization, along with ISO and other SDOs are working on.


Jeff Dance – 00:02:39: Awesome. Great to have you here. Jeff, I understand you recently got an award at the Automate Conference. Can you tell us what that award was and also why they gave it to you?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:02:48: Well, it’s called the Engelberger Award, and it’s been given since to only people around the world. It’s considered the Nobel Prize of Robotics, and I wanted it for leadership, and that’s a category that’s only been awarded, I think, times now. Why they gave it to me? Well, I think I’ve been doing this for years, Jeff, and played a big role in getting the association to the point where it is now, where it represents Companies involved in Robotics and AI, and machine vision, and other automation technologies, motion control. That makes us about the largest, I believe, in the world in this segment. I think my lifetime of accomplishments in making that happen are the reason I’ve been given this award.


Jeff Dance – 00:03:35: We’re honored to have you on the show with us. And especially as we think about the future, being able to reflect on the past and kind of see the trends and kind of where things are going. I know we were chatting on the plane there, sitting by each other just recently after Robotics conference, really sparked my interest in trying to get more of your insight as we think about the future. And Aaron, you know, your experience and depth being in the space, but also working on the standards that will shape the future. You’re really excited to have you guys both with us. Before we dive in, you know, what is something you guys do for fun?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:04:06: I collect whiskey. Scotch, Irish whiskey, bourbon. You know, and I like sports and I like to read and play golf. But I think if there was something unique about it, it’d probably be the interest in whiskey.


Jeff Dance – 00:04:18: OK, OK. You got it, Aaron.


Aaron Prather – 00:04:20: Yeah. And I can actually back Jeff off on that. Me and him have, have, have split numerous bottles of whiskey. Uh, he actually, one of his favorite bourbons is actually made here in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. So I know Jeff always likes coming down. I’m an avid reader. I really like to read about various things and drink whiskey while doing that. And I’m also, I actually, uh, have a little bit of connection to horse racing. So I like going to the track, watching the races. And, uh, so yeah, this is the time of my year with the triple crown, uh, races going on, but that’s sort of how I, I split my day up to between work and fun.


Jeff Dance – 00:05:01: Thanks for sharing that. You know, human robot integration could mean a lot of different things for the purpose of today. You know, let’s define it a little bit. We’re not talking today about, you know, physical machine integration, like biohacking, but generally about how Robots and humans work together and kind of exist in the same space. So that’s sort of the general definition I would give as we kind of dive in deeper. Anything else that you guys would add to that?


Aaron Prather – 00:05:27: I think that when we’re talking about this, that there is numerous ways to look at how humans and Robots collaborate. I know from the A3 and ISO and ASTM world, there is this whole idea of collaborative applications, of where you are working right next to a robot, and you are doing a collaborative application with that robot, and that is a fast-growing space. But we’re also starting to see the advent of wearable Robots, of actually putting Robots onto the human body, and how does that augment the human? Is the robot moving the person around? That would be probably more on the exoskeleton side. But also we’re starting to see folks like the doctor octopus suits are coming into reality in some places. There is this huge intersection of the human and the robot working together either in the same workspace or even on the human body itself.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:06:25: Yeah, that’s a really good point, Aaron. Traditionally, when we think about Robots, they were kept apart from us. They were behind fences. And as we get into this world where they’re more involved in our daily lives, we’re going to interact with them more. And they’re going to continue to be tools to help us do our jobs. And so there’s a lot of developments in what Aaron was just talking about, collaborative meaning, working in close contact with Robotics, whether they’re mobile or fixed. And then, yeah, exoskeletons and these other wearable technologies, pretty exciting stuff.


Jeff Dance – 00:06:59: It’s pretty exciting. Jeff, you were recently at the Automate Conference. Obviously you helped found that and put it on. Keynote Speakers were the likes of NASA, Siemens and other big Robotics Companies talking about where the future’s going. What were some of the trends or exciting things you saw this year? Having attended many years, can you speak to some of the things that you were excited about this year?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:07:21: Sure. One of the biggest challenges historically has been ease of use. Companies say it’s too complicated, it’s too costly. It’s not for me. The industry has done a really good job of making Robotics easier to use, out of the box solutions that can be up and running quickly, low code, no code, so that you don’t, if you’re a user, you don’t need to have a big internal engineering operation anymore for many applications, not all. And sometimes you don’t even need a system integrator to set it up, although many times you do. That would be one trend. This ease of use that is really important now is just about every industry is looking to automate. The second one I would say is this continued discussion about AI and what ChatGPT and other machine learning technologies mean for Robotics and for automation in general and for all of our lives. That was a big discussion point at Automate. And then finally, and it’s sort of related to the first point, this idea that Robotics and automation were only for big Companies. You had to be some General Motors or somebody. Now, small and medium sized Companies are starting to get the point. When you see how simple it’s been in some of these applications, just about anybody can do it. And if they start with the right applications, they can see success quickly.


Jeff Dance – 00:08:41: It seems to be, if those are the recent trends you saw, I would say those are also recent problems that I would say the Robotics industry has experienced. And so it’s good to hear those are some of the top trends that I think will shape the future and some of the speed we’re anticipating and hoping for. Aaron, what about you? What are some of the kind of the biggest trends or advancements that you’ve been seeing recently?


Aaron Prather – 00:09:02: Yeah, I fully agree with Jeff on this. I was at Automate as well, saw very much the same thing, heard exactly what Jeff was saying, the same things. And it is growing. It is no longer for large Companies. We’re starting to see more of the SMEs, the small medium enterprises coming into the market. I saw a lot of those type of individuals walking the floor there in Detroit at Automate, and that was great to see because that means it is, we are expanding out. And what was interesting for me is I left Detroit and flew to London to go to ICRA, which is the biggest Robotics research conference in the world that’s put on by our friends over at IEEE to see what’s coming up now through the research ranks. And so it was a really interesting take of seeing industry one week and what they’re working on and where they’re going, and then going in to see what are the researchers trying to bring up through the ranks. And the whole human robot integration is definitely gonna grow more. What a lot of those researchers were showing in London of what they’re working on is really going to elevate a lot of this human robot collaboration on so many scales. So it’s great to see that on the industry side, we are starting to see the board expand. More Companies are coming to the table, more industries are coming to the table. That was one of the great presentation that A3 actually put on at Automate was talking about how Robots are no longer for those big industries. Now, the automotive industry is still dominant, but there’s so many other players coming into market. And then just seeing what’s in the works, it’s gonna be a fascinating five, years as we go forward.


Jeff Dance – 00:10:42: Thank you. I’m glad you went to that conference and I hope we can gather some more insights. And today, I think I agree. I think there’s a confluence of things that are happening between AI, the cloud, the cost of the robot parts and the sensors that is just all trending to make things really accelerate. And I think a lot of that centers around problems. And I wanna touch on that. What are some of the key problems that have surfaced recently that have really brought this much focus and attention to the human-robot integration speed we’re seeing today?


Aaron Prather – 00:11:16: I’ll jump on that. And I know Jeff has some really good thoughts on this as well. And it’s really, it’s not the Robots. It’s not the technology. It’s the lack of people. I mean, that, that is what it’s really coming down to is we are seeing shrinking populations across the globe. The baby boomers are retiring out there. The generations that came behind the baby boomers were not big enough to replace them. We are starting to see that. And we’re seeing it on a global scale. There are so many countries and it seems like every month we’re hearing about another country whose population growth has gone negative. They’re not hitting replacement numbers anymore. So I think that’s one of the big things that is driving this is just, we don’t have enough people to do a lot of the tasks. And I said, task. I did not say jobs. I said tasks, because that’s ultimately what’s going to start happening as Robots come in is we’re going to give the Robots some of those tasks that the humans just don’t want to do anymore. Or don’t have time really to do so they can focus on the bigger things. And again, that’s where this human and robot interaction is going to get some critical.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:12:21: Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly right, Aaron. And I’ll just sort of illustrate what that looked like coming out of COVID is the people that are here don’t want to do those dull, dirty and dangerous tasks. So you think about a company like Tyson Foods, they’re handling chicken on the processing line. You couldn’t bring people that have them side by side during COVID anyway. So what are your choices if you’re a company like that, if you don’t automate to keep production up? And if people just say, you know what, I’m not doing that anymore. Or if you travel anywhere, you know, Aaron, we’ll be coming to Memphis soon with our AMR event, and we’ll be looking for restaurants maybe on a Monday night. Well, in Detroit, I know that a lot of restaurants are closed on Monday night. So what are they gonna do? It’s not because people don’t want to eat out on Mondays, it’s because there’s no people, the shortage of cooks, the shortage of servers. So they’re looking at how do we automate some of that? And it makes sense because, you know, if people don’t want to do the jobs and there’s fewer people with the demographic changes, automation is a great solution sometimes. Yeah.


Jeff Dance – 00:13:24: I think as a service provider in the ecosystem, you know, in the last five years, I think the Companies and the industries we’re seeing now express a lot more interest, you know, healthcare Robotics, restaurant Robotics, logistics and manufacturing sort of Robotics. Before, I think it was the big shortage that, when we started in the Robotics space was construction. And there was major labor shortages, but it seems like in the last few years, all of these industries have had major labor shortages and major pain points. And it’s because human beings have had time to think. And like, they’re like, hey, I actually don’t wanna go back to some of that mundane work. And I think the mundane of today is different than the mundane of yesterday. People have a shorter attention span, a short, they’re really searching for more meaning. And I think we had time, humans had time to think. And so I think that it’s changed human nature as far as like, what is meaningful to me. And so I see how, I could see how that creates a large rise in the need to just fill the jobs that aren’t available. But the reality is people still fear, Robots taking away jobs at the same time and all the job displacement. And so there’s a lot of fear with Robotics, you know, as experts in the field, how do you guys respond to someone that kind of brings those problems up?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:14:45: That’s the question I face just about every day, Jeff. And I’ve been facing this question ironically for years. Literally when I started in Robotics, that was the fear. That Robots are gonna put everybody in the US automotive industry out of work. And well, it put a lot of people out of work early on when the robot industry went into the tank. A lot of people I knew working for Robotics Companies were out of a job. But my belief is that the greatest threat to jobs is when Companies can no longer compete because that’s when all the jobs are at risk. And what we saw over the past two decades was a lot of US jobs being shipped to Asia to be done there because we were chasing low cost labor. Now, ironically, the world’s largest user of Robotics today is China. So I think they’ve got a lot of labor there and their costs are certainly lower. Why are they all in on Robotics? Why is it a national strategy to do that? It’s because in order to keep all that manufacturing that they won, they need to be the best. They need to have the best quality and the fastest delivery, the greatest productivity and Robotics, they recognize will help them do that because there’s always gonna be lower cost labor somewhere, certainly is now in Asia than there is in China, less cost for labor in other countries. I think more and more people are looking at what has happened with technology over many decades. New technologies are introduced, there’s fear about computers. I remember they were going to put everybody out of work, but they make us so much more productive and allow us to do things that we couldn’t do before. It makes it so that new jobs emerge, and the jobs are often better, safer, and higher paying jobs. A great example is in warehouses. Who wants to walk six miles a day lugging heavy boxes around? If they could oversee that or do other jobs where they get to use their brain and not walk home every day exhausted and their back hurts them like mine does right now. It makes sense that these technologies are going to make create more jobs as they’ve done throughout history. I don’t see this changing anytime soon.


Jeff Dance – 00:16:56: Creating more jobs than even losing jobs, I think. Some of the recent industry reports have suggested that you actually create more jobs. It’s going to require that retraining like all of history has shown when technology evolves. You don’t have a lot of wagon wheel makers anymore. But yeah, I echo that. I think that was the same sentiment for the computer. People fear the computer at the same time. But it’s interesting to hear from you, Jeff, that this has been a trend for the last years. Probably won’t go away. People probably can still ask you every day. But it’s good to, as we think about the future of human-robot integration, things being even more integrated where we’re working alongside of Robots, how that is an evolution that can make us more productive and make our work more meaningful at the same time. Aaron, what thoughts do you have?


Aaron Prather – 00:17:40: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s also a little bit of a cultural issue. If you go to Asia, you don’t hear a lot of anti-robotic language. And as Jeff just said, China has a higher robot density in its manufacturing now than the US does. Okay. Korea has a thousand Robots per workers. They are the highest concentration. Japan is not far behind them. Singapore is not far behind them. I think the US is ninth now on density of Robots to US Workers. And it is, and Jeff’s been fighting this battle a long time and it’s not gotten much better, you would think we would be getting to that point as, as more data comes out that Robots are actually creating jobs. I mean, when the ATM was introduced, everyone said that’s going to put bank tellers out of jobs and we have plenty of data now to show that never happened. Actually there were more bank tellers created as the ATMs were introduced because the ATMs took away the lowest task that the teller had to do, which was give you money and take your money. That’s not a very, I mean, that’s a task that needs to be done at a bank every day, but that’s not what a teller can really do for you. And so when the ATMs got introduced, that actually freed the tellers up to do other services. And that’s when you saw the explosion of all these things you can get at a bank now, because the low end tasks were handed, handed off to automation so that the tellers could take care of other things and sell you other products or do other things for you. And that, that expanded the banking industry. And I think we’re already seeing studies coming out of like MIT, Notre Dame that are starting to show firms that lose jobs to automation are the ones that didn’t add jobs. Their competitors added jobs and allowed them to do the same thing the banks did. It freed their employees up from those low hanging tasks, allowed their workers to do other things to take on more business, which stole the businesses, business from the Companies that did not automate. So the whole thing is, is it Robots or just another tool that helps you expand your business and. Some folks are starting to catch on to that. We saw a lot of that at Audemars. We saw businesses really embracing that. It’s just how do we get the general public now to embrace that thought? And I think it will take time, but. It will happen. It will happen. We’re seeing younger kids, the younger kids are embracing this.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:20:19: I agree. I mean, speaking of the younger kids, when you look at these programs like VEX Robotics and First Robotics and all the excitement that those programs create, now, they’re primarily extracurricular programs. How do we make them part of the curriculum? How do we actually train the students of the future for the jobs of the future? How do we make sure that we’re not focused exclusively, that everybody’s got to have a four-year degree, a master’s or PhD, that, hey, there are jobs open right now that high school kids could get if they went and got the right certificates from a community college, in a technical school nearby. And there’s a shortage. I think it’s going to be million by or just in manufacturing alone. I’ll give you another one. So this is the kind of thing we don’t think about. We go to get our tires changed. We wait an hour. Why? Because there’s a shortage of technicians to do it. Companies like Discount Tire, apparently they have technicians short of what they need. So somebody, this company where I live in Plymouth, Michigan, came up with RoboTire, where it’s a Ford robot system that can change your tires in minutes or collect all the data, knows exactly what tension to torque the wheel to. And if something goes wrong, they can look at the data exactly when it was done and where. Those are the kinds of applications that are being demanded out there. Because first of all, we don’t want to wait an hour or multiple hours. Second of all, Discount Tire wants to fulfill the demand of people who want their tires rotated and nobody wants to do it because it’s not a great job. Controlling it by a cell phone might be a pretty good job.


Jeff Dance – 00:22:02: That makes sense. I was talking to someone else in the healthcare space and they were talking about care and all the back and forth that happens with just a typical nurse. And if the focus of a nurse could be purely focused on care then, and there wasn’t as much of the back and forth movement because they were augmented and supported by Robots, then they could focus more on care. And I think that the augmentation and the support as you think about human integration can lead to more meaningful work. And I think as humans, we have to come to that realization even though change is always scary. And I think that the media has populated in our own thinking maybe, in our own biases against some of the future of Robotics and AI, for sure. As we think about standards, Aaron, this is a field you kind of work in. It’s also a problem space. We’re deep in Robotics and getting Robots to talk to each other, thinking about human robot integration and how things communicate. A lot of our UX work actually focuses on the communication. What are some of the current initiatives to help standardize Robotics such that we can progress at the pace we want to?


Aaron Prather – 00:23:12: Yeah, and I highly recommend everyone that is in the robot industry, make sure that they’re always up to speed on the robot safety standards that A3 helps ISO on, especially here in the US, making sure that you’re involved in those and are aware of those. Because robot safety is one of the first pillars for our industry that’s very critical. We don’t want Robots hurting humans. We just talked about the fears humans have. But you never really hear about Robots hurting humans, and that’s because we have some really great safety standards that have been worked on for decades. And hats off to A3 under their former umbrella of RIA, Robotics Industry Association, who helped really get those going. But then when you start looking at where we need to go next, and yeah, I’m looking at that on a daily basis and talking to a lot of key folks, working with folks over at A3, working with people at ISO, IEEE, all the various agencies of what do we need next? And interoperability is a big one. And we have some great groups working on that on both sides of the Atlantic. And we’ll just have to see how it plays out. But the biggest thing was three, four years ago, you brought up interoperability and everyone’s like, nope, I ain’t, nope, I’m gonna sell all, you’re just gonna buy Robots from me. That’s all you’re gonna do. And like, nah, that ain’t gonna play guys, because the demands of what Companies are gonna need, no one’s gonna be able to provide everything to them. So you have to have interoperability built in so that your Robots can communicate with other Robots. And there’s some great work at Mass Robotics up in Boston, working on some things. VDMA over in Germany is working on some things. So it is, work is underway. It’s just gonna be how do we, this in alignment with everything else. That’s gonna be our challenge as standards groups of how do we just make sure we’re all, we’re not conflicting with each other. That’s gonna be one of the first keys. And then it is gonna be starting to look at test to performance standards that, so as Robots start exiting the factory, as I like to say, and entering the public space, that you have mechanisms in place for those industries that are governed maybe not under the ISO safety standards, but need something of how do we help them bring on what has already been built by, for manufacturers, which are really good baselines, safety standards that can apply to other industries. It’s just how do we bring those into those worlds? What might we need to tweak for a safety for the public when around a robot versus a robot in an industrial setting? But again, as we talk about the how humans and Robots are working together closer, that we will start seeing those bridges form, okay? And it’s just gonna take a community. So I really recommend if you have a passion about seeing Robots grow, you need to get involved in a standards process. You need to work with one of us standards organizations. I know A3 is always looking for folks here in the United States to work on the safety standards. I’m always looking for folks to work on the test and performance standards in support of those. So we will find you a home if you are interested in working in this stuff. It’s just, what is your expertise? What is the knowledge you bring? Because I know Jeff would love to pick your brain. I would love to pick your brain, but that’s how we move these standards forward. We have to hear from the community. We have to hear what are those gaps we need to address because we can’t see everything. And so it is keeping that in mind of, because standards can become regulations. That’s the other real key point to this is I’ll work on standards till the day I die and they may never become a regulation, but sometimes standards do become regulations. So it is always important to work on the standards because do we really want someone outside of our industry dictating how we need to operate? It’s best to actually have the experts within the industry make the standards, the suggestions, because they know best. They know what is gonna work and not work.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:27:23: I’ll take that a step farther, that last part. One of the things that you worry about is OSHA inspectors in the United States coming into your facility, looking at your robot operation and saying, that doesn’t look safe, okay? Well, one of the reasons that they might say that is their internal guidelines haven’t changed in over a decade. Many of these people haven’t been in a factory. So we’ve put a big emphasis on working with OSHA. We have an official agreement where we train their inspectors and provide them with updated materials so that they know what they’re looking at. So if they see a robot that isn’t behind a fence, they don’t automatically say, well, there’s no way that can be safe because the world has changed where many of those applications are safe.


Jeff Dance – 00:28:02: Thank you. Yeah, we started the Northwest Robotics Alliance here in Seattle to try to bridge together some of the big tech Companies and represent the port to farmland Robotics scene in the Northwest, a lot in Washington, but also Idaho, Oregon, and British Columbia. And one of the things we’ve been seeing is, hey, there are some standards, but there’s a lot of room for opportunity. And as we think about human robot integration, robot to robot integration. We laid some standards, we have some stuff around intent, and there’s a lot I think in place from a safety perspective, but as far as getting them to truly collaborate once we do have true interop, it seems like there’s still a lot of room there. And then when from a human perspective, how we communicate intent, robot intent, and then have standards around safety as we start mingling, it seems like that’s definitely a place that we need to keep laying the groundwork for the progress we expect in the future. So I’d love to double click on that maybe afterwards, but I see you guys both as leaders in the standard space and something that, like you said, it’s something we gotta keep driving for because it could become the regulation. Thank you for that. As we look to the future, as we think about human robot integration, there’s an element of where human and Robots will integrate and then where Robots might just automate something. It’s like we have years of history where Robots have just automated some things, maybe been isolated and allowed humans to do more meaningful tasks or not do the dirty, dirty, dole dangerous. But as we look to the future, where do you guys see things changing where humans and Robots will mingle a lot more? Obviously we’re starting to see examples, but as we look forward to years from now, what do you guys envision?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:29:50: Well, I’ll tell you where I’d like it to be. I don’t know that it’ll be there, is in our homes. I mean, I’ve been doing this, like I said, four decades, we’ve been talking about service Robots, doing everything in our daily lives and elder care and all these things. Joe Engelberger was extremely passionate about that. He believed we could have multi-purpose Robots in our home, doing the tasks that we don’t wanna do. Same way we’re talking about it in factories or warehouses, cleaning, cooking, cleaning the bathroom, all these things, right? We’re not there yet. And elder care, there are a lot of people who are living longer, who are still sound of mind, but maybe their body isn’t strong and they would just need a hand, just some sort of help. Getting out of a chair and getting into the bathroom or into the bedroom, they’re just maybe little things and we still can’t really do it. We’re making a little bit of progress, but this is something that right now, if you say, okay, I want a robot in my home, it’s gonna be a vacuum cleaner because that’s all it is basically. And there’s some other things, but they haven’t had any commercial success, right? When do we get to that point? Will it be in to years, maybe at the end of that period, but certainly a long way to go. And that’s where I hope anyway, we see more interaction in our lives, especially in our homes.


Aaron Prather – 00:31:11: agree with Jeff, we still have so far to go. But I think we’re going to start chipping away bit by bit. I really think the logistics industry really proved out with the advent of introduction of mobile Robots on a much grander scale. Especially now that we have autonomous mobile Robots running around many warehouses, many factories. Now we’re starting to see that application of, if you need to move something from point A to point B, it’s best to have a robot do that and have the person doing something else. You get not much value of having a person just walking around. So that’s why we’re starting to see hospitals with Robots that are bringing stuff from the supply area to the nurses, so the nurses can stay on their floor, near their patients, and not walking down to get a medicine or something and then coming back. That’s not the value of a nurse. We’re seeing that in restaurants where we have the waiter Robots that are bringing the food out to the table, but really the waitress or waiter is still giving you the food, because they are there. They’re staying on the floor. They’re making sure your drink’s full. They’re making sure everything’s going well. So I think we’re going to start chipping away as we learn on the industry, the manufacturing, the logistics side of what applications can we pull into the public space. But our biggest challenge still is this. This is why humans are what we are, is we have this magical thing here. We have this opposable thumb. We can grasp things. We can pick up things. We can do all that. There is this issue right now in Robotics that some of what we see as easy task, of just picking something up, is still so hard for a robot. So we need to do more of that work. As I said, when I went to London, there is research being done. There is a lot of focus in trying to duplicate this. So we can get to what Jeff just described. Robots in our home, helping us do a bunch more things. It’s just, it is so hard. It is such a hard thing. We are magical creatures and we are hard to duplicate to say the least. So it will take time, but I have so much faith in what humans are capable of doing. We will get there. I just hope Jeff and I are around to be drinking, having two bourbons brought to us by a robot one day.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:33:35: I’ll drink to that, Aaron.


Jeff Dance – 00:33:37: Nice. Yeah, I’ve commented to people that our own hand has degrees of freedom in it, and you attach that to the elbow and the shoulder, and our ability to run while moving, while crossing the street and observing gigabytes of data. And it’s like, we are magical creatures. And when you understand our capabilities, you start to see the value of really… The integration, really, where it’s like, you know, if the humans can pick up, or the Robots can pick up, the less meaningful tasks, so we can amplify all those capabilities that we have for better. That makes me excited for the future. I’m with you that it’s hard to kind of determine the future, but you know, what we’ve seen in the last year from generative AI and from AI, you know, it seems like Robotics and AI really kind of go hand in hand. I guess, you know, if you look at the definition of robot having some form of intelligence, maybe that make it different than a machine, how do you guys see AI, you know, speeding up the robot-human integration of the future?


Aaron Prather – 00:34:38: It’s interesting is there was an article this week of ChatGPT designed its first robot. That was pretty interesting. Now all it did is gave it instructions on how to build it. And it came up with a tomato picking robot and says, yeah, don’t make the gripper too hard, make sure you have this. Yeah. These are sort of. Okay. But it is of, I think what we’re going to see before we really see AI on the robot, making the robot even more amazing. I think we’re going to see the AI behind the scenes, improving the design, making faster calculations on how the sensors perceiving things. So it will be very incremental, but then it is, do we then get a hockey stock? Oh, wow. We just super accelerated. And I think that’s what’s going to be interesting in the next five years is as AI advances, we’re probably, I mean, right now, a lot of folks don’t realize their packages are getting to them faster because there’s an army of Robots behind the scene. I think we’re going to see the same thing is there’s a lot of AI behind the scenes in Robotics that we’re not really seeing helping how it’s advancing it. But then eventually we are, and it’s going to be that almost like how ChatGPT just appeared one day, it seemed like we’re going to probably see some major breakthrough in the next five years. And then it will be, where is this taking us? And there’s a lot of fear in that right now. But again, I have a lot of confidence in my fellow humans that we can figure this out, we can stay ahead of this. It’s just, we have to be cognizant of what’s how the current AI can be manipulated. Cause that’s the other thing we’re starting to see is you can manipulate these for the good or the bad. And if we know that, if we’re aware of that, we can hopefully put things in place. Jeff, your thoughts?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:36:28: AI is another technology we’ve been talking about for four decades. Machines were going to be so much smarter than us and do all these things. And it didn’t happen years ago. It’s starting to happen now. Similar kind of experience to Robotics where things are really rampant. I think. As long as there’s a defined benefit from using the AI, this is what you have to think about. A lot of these things are flashy, but do you need it? Do we need an AI to share that bourbon? No, we really don’t. What are the tasks that it makes sense for is still to be determined at what cost and what are the issues? As long as it remains a tool that we’re in control of, we’re going to do a lot of great things with it. We’re going to find cures to diseases and we’re going to be able to get information so much quicker to analyze our issues. ChatGPT is where it is, came from nowhere, like you said, a month ago, I hadn’t heard of it. But think about what that means five or years from now. If it gets to a point where we’re not in control of it, then you have an issue. I don’t think we’re going to get to that point, because I think people are smart enough to realize, it ain’t just America, it ain’t just China, the whole world is trying to figure out how to take advantage of these technologies. It puts everybody at risk if somebody makes it so that we no longer have control. I think people understand that intuitively, this idea that somehow AI is going to take over the world. I guess I’m optimistic. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s going to be a positive development, the same way that these other technologies have been, even though their capabilities are very different.


Jeff Dance – 00:38:07: I would echo that. I think we see as a positive development as well. It is interesting to see what the big tech Companies are doing with generative AI for Robotics, particularly. And not everyone’s kind of watching this, but there’s been a groundswell movement from some of the big tech Companies who have the data and the big cloud repositories to kind of build these libraries, not just the language model, but these visual models and these sensory motor skill models. When you start combining those things, it can create a common sense paradigm where all of a sudden you can ask a chat interface to do something that lives on a robot that can create a sequence of tasks that can translate that to a sequence of motor skills and have the common sense of reading an environment and then going to get something done. And I see that as we think about integration with humans, my theory is that this is gonna really speed up that sort of integration that will be meaningful in the home or kind of in the workplace where it creates a connection point that isn’t a chat dialogue, but it is a voice-to-voice sort of human dialogue that’s at our most basic communication levels. I’m pretty excited about where that’s going, but it’ll be interesting to see how the big tech Companies and then some of the smaller startups take these resources and translate it into and make that available to all the robot Companies today because it seems to be somewhat limited right now, but it seems like the building blocks are in place.


Aaron Prather – 00:39:30: I agree. And we’re starting to see a lot of little experiments with those large language models on Robots. I think there is a video going around of a Boston Dynamics spot that had ChatGPT keeping on it. And the gentleman could give him instructions and he could do simple commands. So, yes, it is starting and that will have a play into human robot collaborations going forward. But then the issue is also how well is the model? Is the model going to be able to understand everybody? I mean, I know, in my previous life at FedEx and doing warehousing, it was also like we had some associates that had earphones on so they could hear and they could talk and someone would tell them, pick from that aisle, do this. Well, the whole thing is, is not everyone speaks English. So you had to have those systems understand different languages. So that will be the interesting thing is, is it as simple as putting Google Translate into some of these LLMs or what’s that gonna look like? So it’s promising, but oh gosh, we have so much work to do to say, to make it where you have the same experience that I have versus Jeff has versus someone on the other side of the planet has. That’s gonna be the big challenge.


Jeff Dance – 00:40:50: In addition to the conversation we had with our guests on today’s episode, we asked another expert to provide their insights on the future.


Jeff Soesbe (Sound Bite) – 00:41:00: My name is Jeff Soesbe. I’m a senior software engineer in the Robotics group of Fresh Consulting. I’m also a science fiction author with multiple published short stories and short plays, several featuring Robots and humans interacting. Which industries have the most resistance to integration with Robotics, and how can we overcome that? I could see, I think, definitely medicine and medical care, despite an industry which is also very ready for Robotics to come in and help, is also an industry where you also have a lot of resistance. The human touch in medical care is very important. And so the question is going to be how can we somehow use Robotics to help us in areas where we need help, where we have too many people to care for and not enough people to care for them, and can we somehow take these Robotics and make them more friendly, more helpful? I think people will be willing to adopt Robots as part of their medical care, but it needs to be a situation where they can see the benefits and become more receptive to it. We can take examples from Roomba or from very simple companion Robots like the Paro CO robot or very simple comms Robots like a Siri-style robot in your home, which can help you communicate and handle some of your medical issues and communicate with your loved ones, for example. I think also transportation will have a very big resistance to integration with Robotics. And again, these are things that are rightly so. We’re a little nervous about Robots driving cars and trucks around our freeways, but it’s also something where I think… Robotics or human-robotic integration. Somehow having a maybe human driving one truck, but having fallen trucks or people in their cars having robotic assist. And we already see acceptance of some of this in things that help us watch our lane following, things that help us with parallel parking, things that help us with backup cameras and warning us when things are behind us. So I think you’re going to see both resistance and acceptance, especially in transportation of human robot integration or interaction.


Zeeshan Zia (Sound Bites) – 00:43:06: I’m Zeeshan Zia, the CEO of Retrocausal Inc. We are a software company based out of Seattle, Washington, building artificial intelligence and computer vision software to understand assembly processes with the aim of maximizing quality and productivity. Even within manufacturing there are several verticals which almost avoid Robots. A big challenge in Robotics is that there is no such thing as a general purpose industrial robot and even on the research front, there are no viable solutions, there is no viable roadmap to arrive at a general purpose robot. In practice, unless you have a hyper standardized process, it takes millions of dollars to create custom automation for it, whereas a human can do the same job for tens of thousands of dollars a year and is much more adaptable. I believe that there are two major blockers for general purpose Robotics. Number one, a general framework to standardize factory processes such that they will be amenable to be automated and number two, a lack of large data sets, example, you know, sensor and video data comprising of humans performing these assembly operations.


Jeff Dance – 00:44:12: As far as we think to the future, it seems like a lot of the applications, we talk about the applications in the home and it has been interesting to kind of study Dyson and see, I didn’t realize there’s such a big player in Robotics and what they’re kind of doing behind the scenes. I’m really curious how they’re gonna, if they can combine some of the generative AI and their wealth of resources into the home sort of Robotics that I was unaware of. But as it comes, as it relates to the industrial setting and work settings, where do you guys see kind of human robot integration taking off in the next three years? And we can look ahead to or but in the next three years, where do you guys see things really picking up?


Jeff Burnstein – 00:44:52: Well, I mean, certainly the industries that I’ve been looking at are things like construction, which we talked about a little bit earlier, in agriculture and life sciences, healthcare broadly, but those are areas where you think about how we used to go about discovering new drugs versus how we’re capable potentially of doing this or actually doing this now using Robotics and AI to speed that whole process up. And then you think about agriculture, we’re down to the precision level of being able to tell which grape is ready to pick out of the entire vineyard, and how much pesticide to spray or water that’s needed. This is amazing, really. You think about the benefits to the planet of this, in terms of sustainability, you’re not spraying the whole field if you don’t have to. I just think those are some of the industries that I think this whole idea of collaboration, especially as it relates to worker shortages. You think about tougher immigration laws, means less people to go out work in the fields potentially. Wouldn’t automation help there? Well, the tools are getting there.


Aaron Prather – 00:46:07: I would agree with Jeff on that. I think construction is going to be a big one. Actually ASTM and NIST are putting a report together that we’ll publish probably in the fall looking at the construction industry as a whole and what the technologies are that they’re going to need, what they currently have and what is the future. And it is going to be very much of how do you get rid of some of those dull, dirty, dangerous tasks in the construction? And there’s plenty of them to look at. I think some of the early wins that we’re starting to see are some of these tasks that really involve the person bending themselves down to like mark things. We’re seeing Robots now mark out entire job sites because that is just a task that will wear a person down. Also, a person can mess that up and result in thousands of dollars in other expenses. A robot’s more precise. So I think construction is definitely going to become a big area. Agriculture is very big just being in London and what they’re dealing with Brexit on, as Jeff said, you don’t have a lot of folks coming to England anymore to pick potatoes and pick strawberries and all that. So there is a big push in England right now to get Robots into the field so everyone can eat. OK, this is very important stuff. So I think construction and agriculture are going to be the next big players. And what’s sort of sad on that fact, based off what we’re talking about, is that’s also stuff the public won’t see is helping them because it’s all behind the scenes. And I think it will be interesting of maybe we have a new opportunity to actually show the public how they are benefiting from these technologies, especially if we have more Robots picking the food. That should tell you why Robots are important to your day to day life. Even if you don’t see them, those things are keeping you happy. OK, so but yeah, construction and ag. I fully agree with Jeff on that. Those are going to be the two next big industries. They’ll be automated.


Jeff Soesbe (Sound Bites) – 00:48:13: As we advance human-robot integration, which industries and verticals stand to benefit most in the next two years? I’d say it’s going to be industries where we need more people supporting these industries and working in these industries, but where the jobs probably aren’t as appealing or rewarding as they might have once been in the past. One example would be food service, both in the front of the restaurant, waiting on tables, clearing dishes, et cetera, but also in the back of the restaurant, prep and cooking of I think a great example would be the fast food industry. Another example I can see is in some of the issues around medical care, especially where we need more people to help support people in hospitals, maybe with basic rehabilitation, basic patient communications, or also in elder care and support. Can we somehow have Robotics, be able to better integrate with people and support elder folks either in their home or in care facilities, robot helping with people from avoiding falls, maybe even companionship, basic companionship and communications. Another example I can see is the hotel industry. You already go to a hotel and they don’t clean your room as much as they do because they can’t find people to work in the hotels. So you can see Robots taking over basic room cleaning, perhaps delivery of items to room, room service, et cetera. So I can see all three of these industries being ones where you see more human-robot integration and when you see Robots taking on more duties previously performed by humans.


Zeeshan Zia (Sound Bites) – 00:49:38: We need technology that can constantly upscale human operators and help them maximize the capabilities they possess that Robots are far away from having. This includes digital work instructions coupled with AI feedback that can reduce mental fatigue as operators perform sophisticated and potentially variable assembly job as well as AI copilot that can assist industrial engineers in rapidly optimizing processes and lines which complements that human aspect of high adaptability.


Jeff Dance – 00:50:13: Just a couple more questions before we wrap up. As we think about the future, you know, it’s leaders like you and organizations that you guys are aligned with and help build that can shape that future. And as we do so, we’ve seen technology over the years kind of have a life of its own. And sometimes there’s positive good and sometimes there’s not. I certainly think that the benefit of smartphones has been amazing, but they’ve also brought with us a weird dynamic with our human communication kind of integration. Any thoughts on principles that kind of design the future with intent to assure that it stays good or more good than bad? Does anything come to mind as we think about principles that will assure that we’re designing that future and having learned from some of our mistakes in the past?


Aaron Prather – 00:51:02: I would say that it’s going to come down to education. How do we raise the next generations to know what this technology is capable of, what it’s not capable of and what it can happen if it’s in the wrong hands. So I think there’s a lot of fear from folks that they watch the Terminator. They watch Megan. They even watch Wally who knew Wally was an anti-Robot film to some, but apparently it was because it showed humans just sort of laying around, not doing anything. And so, but the whole thing is, is we know your example, Jeff, of the of the self of the smartphone is great. It has opened up whole new economies. It is it is created millions and billions of dollars of wealth, but it’s also changed how our society operates. So hopefully with that in mind, now that we know how these technologies can change us, it’s how do we put policies, standards, regulations? How do we work as a community to sort of create the future we want? But it ain’t going to be just Jeff and I doing that. It’s got to be the whole community doing that. So I am an internal optimist that we can make this a good thing, but yeah, we have to put the guard rails up. We have to know where those are. We have to, and then we have to try and stay in those to the best of our ability.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:52:26: I totally agree. I mean, I think if bad things happen as a result of these technologies or any others. That’s on people. I mean, people are in control. These are tools, all of these technologies, Robots, AI, all of the ones we’re talking about to help people. So people need to think intentionally about how they are going to assist us and make our lives better and not focus on military applications, okay? That’s one we really haven’t talked about much, but that is, forget advanced AI and ChatGPT, right now that is not a good application for these technologies. So, I mean, this comes down to our decisions about what kind of world we want to live in. If we want to use these technologies to create more abundant food and trying to tackle issues like hunger or climate change, we can do it. If we want to do bad things, we can do that too. And hopefully we won’t make that choice.

Jeff Dance –
00:53:25: Thank you. I recently listened to a politician and he had a lot of dire kind of trends that he was forecasting. It was kind of depressing to hear from just some of the bigger climate concerns, energy concerns, and some of the macro trends. The silver lining at the very end of his presentation was that he believed Robotics and AI could solve these problems. And he didn’t have all the answers, but he said, I believe that the technology is sort of the answer for the future. And another interesting thing I found out as a pattern in talking to a lot of Robotics experts and founders on this podcast and elsewhere is some of the deepest robotic scientists believe that they will help by really moving the Robotics industry forward and robot human integration. They will help humans be more human. That’s a deep belief that I think that drives them. And it certainly, it drives me as well as we think about this very topic and how we design it with intent so that it has the most good possible. I don’t think, I don’t believe it’s not gonna be good. We’ll always have issues with technology, but how does it have the most good?


Aaron Prather – 00:54:28: I’ve always said that I believe the robotics industry is probably the most pro-human industry there is. I’m the child of two doctors. In medicine, you try and separate yourself from the patient. You try and disconnect so you can actually save them. The Robotics industry is so loving and caring. I’ve always gotten that feeling that they do exactly what you said, Jeff, that they want to help humanity. I think there’s not a nobler cause. The Robotics industry, I feel, is probably the biggest one that embraces it. They want to free humans up from the dull, dirty, dangerous task so they can do more stuff. Where we can enjoy our lives. Where Jeff and I can have a bourbon and read books and watch horse racing and all that. So it is. We have to be cognizant of what we can do and what we can’t do.


Jeff Dance – 00:55:23: Love it. Well, let’s end with that. I wanna thank you guys both for your, just your leadership in the space, for being pioneers and being consistent. I’m really excited about where, you know, the industry is going and to have people like you trying to help shape it and design it with intent is meaningful. So thanks for being with us today.


Aaron Prather – 00:55:42: Thank you.


Jeff Burnstein – 00:55:43: Yeah, thanks for having us.


Jeff Dance – 00:55:46: The Future Of podcast is brought to you by Fresh Consulting. To find out more about how we pair design and technology together to shape the future, visit us at freshconsulting.com. Make sure to search for The Future Of on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast, or anywhere else podcasts are found. Make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any of our future episodes. And on behalf of our team here at Fresh, thank you for listening.