Robots and humans have been co-workers for years, but rarely have we been truly working together. This may be about to change with the rise of collaborative robotics.

Unlike traditional industrial robots, collaborative robots aren’t placed behind glass or in cages. Instead, they are designed for safety and dexterity.

The vanguard of this new generation is already here: Robots by Rethink Robotics or Universal Robots, for instance, combine the precision and speed of machinery with the scale and flexibility of a pair of human hands. Traditional robotics manufacturers, including ABB Robotics or Fanuc, are joining the race as well. With sales of industrial robots accelerating (+27% last year) and the vast majority of manufacturing tasks yet to be automated, the potential for human-robot collaboration is only beginning to be tapped.

The automotive sector and the assembly of consumer electronics are two areas that could benefit greatly from collaborative robots, which can hold and adjust the angle of the piece being worked, fetch the next part to be installed or tidy the workspace. Advanced computer vision may also allow a robot to perform high-precision tasks like sinking tiny screws or crimping wires while a human co-worker does other work on the piece being assembled.

This kind of streamlining effectively adds man-hours to the day, increasing productivity and reducing human idle time by as much as 85%, according to research from MIT. It also means human labour can be saved for more creative or subtle tasks.

At hospitals and other care facilities, such extra time could help overtaxed doctors and nurses increase the quality of patient care—and save hospitals money. The University of California, which has invested $7m in a fleet of 25 equipment-carrying robots for its new hospital, expects to get its money back in less than two years, for example. Robots are also present in the operating theatre assisting surgeons and allowing procedures to be performed remotely or automatically.

In the short term, improving robots’ software and AI will be key to making robots more collaborative, according to Rethink Robotics’ Jim Lawton and Carnegie Mellon roboticist Daniel Huber. “It’s the software that’s allowing it to act like a human, to deal with changing environments,” says Mr Lawton, chief product and marketing officer at Rethink Robotics. His company has already tripled the speed and doubled the precision of its robot, Baxter, through code improvements alone, for example. Mr Huber and others are working on making robots “socially aware”, allowing them to understand better what people are doing in order to respond appropriately. A robot that can’t tell one person from another or that doesn’t understand when someone tells it to stop would be a poor fit for a crowded workplace.

Advances in the versatility and safety of robotic workers, combined with falling costs of the robots themselves, will bring man and machine closer than ever, and more often than ever, over the next decade. This rise of collaborative robots does not necessarily imply less of a role for their human co-workers—rather, these robots might very well highlight and increase the value of those tasks that humans do best.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Devin Coldewey writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: A competitor holds up one of his soccer-playing robots for the camera during the Robocup tournament in Singapore. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash.