Over the past 40 years, advances in new digital technologies have resulted in two key benefits: a boost in productivity and a reduction of harsh working conditions. Over the last twenty years these technologies have evolved into solutions for work situations where human intervention is the weak link and where value can be added by focusing humans on more important tasks. Today, robotics considered to be a mature market, is moving into a new era of collaborative technology (known as ‘cobotics’). Until the signing of the Machine Directive 2006/42/EC, which came into force in 2009 in France, the coexistence of robots and humans in the same space was prohibited. Legislation and associated technology are opening a new area for service robotics.

 

A few years ago, robots were confined to factories, where they were assigned a strictly manufacturing role. Due to this regulatory and technological breakthrough, they are now playing a role in public environments assisting people in their daily lives. This is leading to greater complexity in design as well as legitimate safety concerns. Humans and machines must operate side by side in the same spaces, learn to work together and interact while ensuring maximum safety for all. This is the challenge that cobots are now addressing, with a number of notable early successes in France, above all in the hospital sector.

 

At the central laboratory of the Lyon hospital authority, mobile robots carry samples from point A to point B. They know their way around and can select a path to avoid any kind of obstacle. This large-scale hospital project has laid the foundations for the development of even more innovative solutions. For example, the Nantes hospital complex has rolled out a solution for transporting endoscopes by robots from the sterilization areas to operating rooms for surgeons who need the equipment. These robots use elevators yet also make way for patients. They face many obstacles but are capable of taking ‘care’ of the people around them. By delegating these tasks to robots, hospital staff can spend more time with patients, concentrating on more rewarding tasks, focusing on patients rather than logistical tasks. Thanks to this type of project, we have gained a better understanding of how robotics can put people at the heart of technological innovation.

 

The next stage in the development of cobotics, known as “Collective and Situational Intelligence” (CSI) is already underway. This computing layer of artificial intelligence enables robots not only to operate alongside humans, but also work as a group. For example, they can directly communicate information about obstacles encountered on their path so that the whole group of robots can react as efficiently as possible, anticipating and coordinating in order to constantly improve their collective efficiency.

 

The development of artificial intelligence and robotics is set to accelerate considerably in the years ahead. Yet the new space created by these technologies is posing new challenges for society. While cobotics makes it possible to concentrate human action on those domains where people can really add value (skills, empathy, creativity, etc.), it can also replace human beings in such areas as logistics, intermediation, input and transcription. In other words, robots will be able to replace humans especially where people could potentially be a source of error or non-productivity. This development raises the question of qualifying, training and professionally retraining individuals who currently perform such jobs.

 

Thus, ramping up these technologies, is not only a technical challenge, it is a society-wide issue to which we must provide adequate answers.