Grasping the future of robotics

Grasping the future of robotics

[INTERVIEW]

Mr. Charlie Duncheon
Co-founder and advisor of Grabit, Inc.

JAPAN and the WORLD magazine attended the New Economy Summit 2015 in Tokyo, organized by the Japan Association of New Economy. Among the speakers was Charlie Duncheon, co-founder and advisor of Grabit, Inc., a Silicon Valley start-up in robotics. With over 25 years of experience in high technology and industrial robotics, Charlie Duncheon offered his take on our future with robots during this event.

JAPAN and the WORLD had the opportunity to discuss further with him what lies ahead in the field of robotics, as well as what role Japan can undertake.


Charlie Duncheon, Co-founder and advisor of Grabit, Inc.
Charlie Duncheon, Co-founder and advisor of Grabit, Inc.

—As the name implies, Grabit, Inc. focuses its research and innovation on grippers—what allows a robot to handle objects. Grabit, Inc.’s success lies in it’s use of a patented technology called electroadhesion. Could you tell us more about what electroadhesion is, and how it differs from other material handling technologies?

Grabit has commercialized electroadhesion technology for robotic gripping and other material handling. Electroadhesion is a patented technology that creates electrostatic force in a highly controlled manner, enabling gripping surfaces to adhere to any material. Grabit grippers deposit charges onto the surface to be gripped and then opposite charges on the Grabit gripping surface adhere to the charges on the material.

Before Grabit’s electroadhesion grippers, robot grippers were part specific and functioned by either compressed force on the part to be handled or vacuum suction on the surface of the part. Grabit’s grippers allow a single gripper configuration to handle a broad range of parts.

Grabit’s electroadhesion grippers also pick up parts that can’t be handled with conventional grippers like fabric and delicate flexible circuits.
 

—The field of robotics is one that has seen tremendous developments in the recent years. New designs rival in autonomy, durability, capacity, etc. What do you see in the future of robotics, both in the short-term and in long-term?

In the short term I see a significant cost reduction in robot cells for industrial applications. This trend, combined with ever-growing labor costs, is increasing robot adoption on the factory floor even in low labor cost markets. The cost reduction is coming from multiple sources:

  • New robotic manipulator structures like “soft” robotics—robots with soft, flexible components.
  • Cloud computing lowering the robot controller costs.
  • Easier to implement applications software.
  • Lower cost components like guidance vision. High volume consumer electronics technology like low cost cameras are lowering the costs in robot cells.
Charlie Duncheon (left), receives the Plug and Play Expo award on behalf of Grabit in September 2014.
Charlie Duncheon (left), receives the Plug and Play Expo award on behalf of Grabit in September 2014.

Besides cost reduction, new technologies are enabling new applications. Grippers like Grabit’s will enable automation in new applications including broad range stock keeping unit (SKU) handling. Machine vision is continuing its performance improvement, especially new 3D vision; and artificial intelligence developments will allow robots to respond to unplanned (and unprogrammed) scenarios on the factory floor. These developments for reliable industrial automation will make it easier for robots to enter other markets like the service industry, health care industry, and into the home as assistants to the aged.

In my opinion, Japan has the best know-how in the world to successfully utilize robots on the factory floor.

—Japan is commonly seen as a leader in robot technology. How do you account for this success? What can you tell us about Japan’s strengths and what it can bring to the global robotics scene?

Japan’s industry saw robots not only as labor cost reduction tools, but also as quality improvement tools. With its broad industrial base, Japan was able to leap ahead of the rest of the world in the broad range of robot applications. In my opinion, Japan has the best know-how in the world to successfully utilize robots on the factory floor. If Japan takes that knowledge combined with innovative designs to the non-industrial markets like health care and home robotics it can lead the world there as well.

—How are the bilateral relations between Japan and the United States when it comes to robot technology? Are there any partnerships or cooperation agreements in place? What would you like to see in the future of Japan-US robotics cooperation?

I believe Japanese companies are more open to partnerships today than in the past, though they need to open up even more in my opinion.

In the 1990s and 2000s I found Japan very cooperative in setting up supply contracts with my company to sell their robots with our controllers. Our company had state of the art controllers with integrated vision, and we needed reliable robot arms to complete our offering; but I found Japan reluctant to buy our controllers to control their robots. In my opinion, Japanese companies need to be more open to purchasing technology from other companies in the world. This would allow Japan to build on their excellent robot application strengths and then enter and succeed in new markets. I think all global robotic companies need to be open in this respect.

—Robotics—and particularly robots with a high degree of artificial intelligence—fascinate but also worry people. Do you think humanity is ready for “advanced” robots, notably from an ethical point of view?

As long as developers in AI follow these rules and robot companies follow safety standards, we can watch a fascinating robotic industry growth that will improve the standard of living for all.

The latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology that is applicable to robotics represents a tiny fraction of the capability of the human brain. AI developments have been very impressive but tend to be application specific. In other words, AI that recognizes a single image in millions of picture samples is completely different than the AI used for a move in chess, voice recognition or automated translation. We are not even close to providing human like, general-purpose decision making for robotics. But on the other hand, when we define the application for the robot, AI tools will be developed and used. This will accelerate robot growth well beyond the factory floor.

As far as the “worry”, it is justified. That is why the Robotics Industries Association for which I served on the Board and as President has always developed and updated clear and specific safety standards for the application of industrial robots. This practice needs to apply to robotics in all markets and applications. The same simulation tools that are used to develop and test the “robot response” can also be used to develop unsafe scenarios in a virtual environment. I like to refer to Isaac Asimov’s three rules of robotics in I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories depicting the interaction of humans, robots and morality:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Grabit’s Panel Gripper allows the handling of mobile devices, flat panel displays, glass, fabric, composite fibers, printed circuit boards, and flexible circuits.
Grabit’s Panel Gripper allows the handling of mobile devices, flat panel displays, glass, fabric, composite fibers, printed circuit boards, and flexible circuits.

As long as developers in AI follow these rules and robot companies follow safety standards, we can watch a fascinating robotic industry growth that will improve the standard of living for all.


Related posts

Leave a Reply

Menu