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Humans Are Underrated

Feb. 19, 2020
The next 50 years will marry the adaptability and context awareness of humans with the strength, precision, computing, and sensing capabilities of robots.

Part of the series: 2070: A Manufacturing Odyssey

Over the next 50 years, research on enabling technologies in automation (such as integrated computational materials engineering, pioneered at Northwestern) and the human-robot interface (such as physically collaborative robots, or "cobots") will dramatically expand the sphere of the possible, while changing the way humans and automation work together.

On the automation side, flexible, point-of-need manufacturing will mature, with vertical integration from materials design to process innovation. At the same time, manufacturing and fulfillment will become increasingly democratized. Currently, anyone can 3D-print plastic parts and set up a fulfillment storefront on Amazon. In the future, widely available tools such as automated design and manufacturing process compilers—connected to suppliers, manufacturers, and cloud design tools—will allow anyone to design products, choose the metamaterials, optimize the manufacturing processes, and fulfill orders, all for a very small up-front investment.

The next 50 years will also be characterized by the increasingly intimate integration of humans and robots, to marry the adaptability and context awareness of humans with the strength, precision, computing, and sensing capabilities of robots. From our first, halting steps beyond the "robots behind cages" paradigm in the early 2000s, we will move toward brain-machine interfaces, neural interfaces, and other high-bandwidth power and information interfaces between humans, robots, and cloud/edge computing. Robots will no longer just be "wearable" (think Sigourney Weaver's exoskeleton “loader” in Z) but bio-integrated, as we become increasingly dependent on our new perception, cognition, and action capabilities.

Cao is Cardiss Collins Professor, mechanical engineering, and associate vice president for research, Northwestern University. She is also director of the Northwestern Initiative for Manufacturing Science and Innovation and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Materials Processing Technology.  

Lynch is professor and chair, mechanical engineering at Northwestern University He directs the Center for Robotics and Biosystems and is editor-in-chief, IEEE Transactions on Robotics. 

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