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Robots in the Office May Not Be Far Off. But Will They Be Safe?

Mechanized workers in the office are slowly making their way from the pages of science fiction and working side-by-side with humans.
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Sure, Dave in accounting is a bit of an automaton. But what if he was a real robot?

Mechanized workers in the office are slowly making their way from the pages of science fiction -- not to mention the isolated industrial cages where they have labored in real life for decades -- and working side-by-side with humans. Self-driving cars, unmanned aerial vehicles (aka “drones”), multi-limbed automatons that complete complex tasks and remotely-operated Beam “telepresence” vehicles are increasingly visible in our day-to-day lives.

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Human-robot collaboration is “gaining an enormous amount of momentum,” Henrik Christensen, executive director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Tech, told MIT Technology Review in April. And while friendly, two-armed robots packing boxes may not be out to get Sarah Connor, safety remains a concern.

Robot-related deaths in the workplace occurred 33 times in the last 30 years, as documented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Many of these incidents involved unsophisticated factory robots not designed to interact directly with people, and fatalities occurred when workers improperly crossed paths with dumb machines just going about their programming.

That’s the thing robots don’t get about us humans -- we’re unpredictable. Currently, OSHA has no specific standards for the rapidly evolving robots industry. But if humans and robots are to work together safely, training robots to anticipate their unpredictable human co-workers is key.

“Most of the time we think about training robots by transferring information to the robot, but to truly working effectively with robots, the transfer of information goes both ways,” Julie Shah, an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the MIT Interactive Robotics Group, told NBC News.

Historically, robots have been trained like dogs, told “good” or “bad” according to how well they followed instructions and completed a task. But when it comes to working safely with humans, that’s not good enough, Shah said.

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Interactive training, however, can help a robot to anticipate what a human may or may not do -- such as turn quickly into the robot’s path, or make another sudden move or unexpected request.

This sort of interactive team-building works with training people to work with robots as well. Once a human starts working with a robot and learns what it can do, Shah explained, expectations often change. “The person is learning to work with the robot, just as the robot is learning to work with the person,” she said.

Even when humans and robots are sharing the same work environment, while not working together directly, safety still remains key. For example, transport robots which operate in hospital halls delivering medications and other supplies, must avoid bumping into their human co-workers -- who, being humans, might stop unexpectedly in their path any time.

Autonomous cargo containers such as the Panasonic Hospi, Adept's delivery robots and iRobot's AVA have sensors that allow them to detect and avoid humans as they move between hospital pharmacies and nursing stations delivering non-urgent medication supplies in pass-code protected shells. "They’re being deployed in real environments, and now safety issues are largely worked out," Shah said. "These are systems that are fairly slow moving and they stop when they see an obstacle."

Hospitals are among the early adopters of such non-factory robots, but "remote presence" systems such as the Beam Pro from Suitable Technologies go a long way towards acclimatizing humans to mechanical co-workers. Think about the "Sheldonbot" from "Big Bang Theory," or the "Snowdenbot" Edward Snowden used to appear from Russia to speak at the Vancouver TED conference in March, both products of Suitable Technologies.

Though technically "robots," these mobile video screen operate via a remote user rather than independently. Devices like the Beam Pro feature large screens on wheels, allowing people to seem "present" at an event, and even roam around offices or conferences, regardless of whether they’re a continent away.

How safe are these mechanical avatars?

Along with two cameras for ground and head view, the latest $16,000 model comes with updates such as assisted driving to adjust speed according to environment. As illustrated by the Beam Smart Presence Safety and Operations Guide on YouTube, there's still room for human error. "Avoid stairwells or ramps, which could lead to a loss of control," the video warns. "If a Beam fell down stairs, it could damage more than itself. It could hurt one of your colleagues."

As evolved as robots may someday become, safety remains primarily a human concern.