Should Industrial Robots Read Between the Lines?

A recent article from IEEE Spectrum explored a communication barrier between humans and artificial intelligence. People have a way of understanding meaning even if the words we use don’t explicitly communicate what we mean. This raises the question of whether or not robots should be able to read between the lines or infer meaning when people say things. This question is definitely important in service industries, but what about manufacturing? Should industrial robots read between the lines?

What you say vs. what you mean

The IEEE Spectrum article examined a research experiment on human-robot interactions. In the experiment, people attempt to place an order with a robot waiter. The waiter, however, was not programmed to recognize indirect commands.

As humans we can understand implicit commands or communication. We recognize that saying, “I would like some water” is in fact a request for water. A robot understands, “I would like some water” as an irrelevant statement without an actual command.

Clearly, robots in service industries would benefit from interpreting or inferring meaning. At the very least, programmers should include this type of language recognition in service robots. Should industrial robots do the same, though?

Robot apples and robot oranges

There’s a big difference between industrial automation and automation in other fields, including robots in the service industry. The capabilities of a robot must reflect the nature of the tasks that they perform. For example, a robot waiter or an automated cashier doesn’t need to be able to lift hundreds of pounds. Similarly, you don’t need an industrial robot to have good people skills.

Industrial automation depends on optimal execution of a specific task with precise rules. We want manufacturing robots to do as they are told. There’s no need for interpretation or inference with factory robots.

We say, “Here is your task and these are the parameters that you must work in.” They say, “OK.” – except not really – and they do what’s asked of them, reliably and consistently, until we tell them to stop or until something interrupts them.

This is the case with our current level of technology, at least. As automation and artificial intelligence technologies improve, however, we must think about the capabilities of robots in the future.

Should industrial robots infer in the future?

Right now, industrial robots that interpret your meaning could cause big problems. Would this ever improve industry, though?

It could prove useful in some situations. Using verbal communication with cobots would be much smoother if they could account for the subtleties and nuances of human communication. It would help ensure that robots do what we mean for them to do, regardless of whether or not we communicate that information with the words we use.

The answer really depends on where technology is in the future. The robots we use in factories today don’t need to read between the lines, but that may not be the case in a few years.

It’s an exciting time for manufacturing and automation. Make sure that your factory machines are ready for whatever the future holds. Call 479-422-0390, or fill out our contact form, for preventive maintenance, inspection, retrofitting, or service for Indramat systems.