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Welcome to the Alpbach Media Academy. We provide in-depth coverage of the European Forum Alpbach 2017 (starting Aug 16, 2017).

An automatic future by design

Human working with robot

Robots are getting cleverer

Maybe you are used to automation in industry but are you ready for declarative design? This new concept in production allows robots to complete tasks without step-by-step human instruction.

Currently automation, specifically the ability of robots to operate without human supervision, is primarily used to increase efficiency in mass production says Dawn Tilbury, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. One of its other main functions is to help alleviate the problem of “aggressive stupidity” by placing laser sensors that stop robots functioning if someone sticks their arm in the operation area.

But current automated systems have severe limitations. “If there are things that need to be cut, that’s very easy for robots,” Tilbury says, but, “if there are things that need to go together, that’s very difficult for robots.” Progress in vision technology and tactile feedback may help overcome many of these difficulties but another, more controversial, technique is being investigated.

“The ultimate goal is fully autonomous systems,” says Matt Carney from the Centre for Bits and Atoms at MIT. Carney has visions of swarms of robots repairing and constructing space stations without individual instruction from humans, and one potential avenue to achieve this is through declarative design. In this system, an engineer indicates to a program what the desired outcome is and the program determines the most effective method to achieve that aim. How does a piece of software comprehend what the best course of action is? “What we are talking about basically is embodying me and all the other mechanical design engineers in a piece of software,” says Carney.

If you are unnerved by the idea of hyper-intelligent software being left in charge of theoretically unlimited production, you’re not the only one. “The way I hope to see this used is not to replace us,” Carney reassures, “but to liberate us from the mundane.” Robots may be able to pick up the grind work but Carney thinks it would be almost impossible to program creativity, inspiration and feeling. There may be a future for us humans yet.

By Conor Campbell, Alpbach Media Academy

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