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The industrial robot revolution

Sandra Gittlen | Feb. 21, 2012
One small step for man, a giant leap for robot-kind.

Battery life is just one of many obstacles that students participating in FIRST Tech Challenge, a head-to-head robotics competition, tackle. Ken Johnson, the program's director, says FIRST, which comprises 250,000 students (mostly high-school age) and 90,000 volunteers, incorporates the myriad skills necessary to fully comprehend the complex world of robotics. 

"We force programming, design, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and other skills to come together in a real-life context. Where most of these areas are usually theoretical, robotics focuses on the practical," Johnson says.

He sees kids coming to the program, which has been made popular by pop culture icons such as Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.I.Am, with a heightened awareness of robotics. "Students are interacting with robotics or automated subsystems in their everyday lives, such as automatic checkout lines," he says.

He expects current FIRST participants, who will be out in the workforce in five years or so, to have a better appreciation of how robots can complement human labor. "They'll succeed in the working world because they'll know how to marry processes with the technology," Johnson says. "Instead of thinking robots replace humans, they'll know that robots and automation can make humans more productive."

Woodie Flowers, a national adviser for FIRST and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that the next generation of workers will have to be able to do something robots can't in order to succeed, something that can't be automated.

As an example, he envisions that someday, patients visiting their doctors will first be interviewed and examined by a robot that can collect verbal and visual signs and symptoms. The robot then will present that information, along with intelligence gathered from medical databases, to the doctor so that he can quickly home in on a diagnoses and consult with the patient on a cure.

"Five years from now robots will be far more ubiquitous and we'll depend on them in a much more fundamental way," Flowers says.


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