The development of smart machines has progressed at a dizzying pace from assembly line articulated robots to the current autonomous equipment and comprehensive robot systems. Science and technology have nevertheless advanced considerably further than you might deduce based on the applications in use. Making machines smarter offers opportunities for new growth and added competitiveness for companies
In modern mines, on the face of it machinery is operating as before, apart from the fact there that is nobody in the operator’s cab any more. At ports and warehouses, the logistics are mostly handled automatically by mobile and smart machines. In the home, the vacuuming can be done by a robot equipped with sensors, and at shopping malls, customers can be guided by a robot that speaks 30 different languages. We have come a long way since the start of the development of smart machines.
“In the mid-1980s, it was almost as if robots stepped outside of plants and production lines. Then people began to see their potential for use other than in traditional industry,” explains Aarne Halme, Professor Emeritus and Director of the Center of Excellence in Generic Intelligent Machines at Aalto University, Helsinki.
According to Halme, the robot technology used for traditional industrial tasks is already mostly complete – now the aim is to develop new types of uses and applications.
“Tasks no longer come to where the machines are, but the machines must move according to the tasks. The keys to competitiveness lie in current ICT, mobility, and automation,” says Halme.
Thus machines are no longer just machines, but to a greater and greater extent they are intelligent entities, which function on the basis of information systems.
“The modern automobile is no longer just four wheels and a body, but rather a computer that you can drive,” Halme describes.
Making machines smarter has enabled for instance the remote operation of construction site equipment: whereas the driver used to sit in the operator’s cab, he can now control the same piece of equipment through the Internet and even from another city. The time spent on work trips decreases, the risks of hazardous working conditions diminish, and productivity increases when one person can control several pieces of equipment at the same time.
“There has not yet been an attempt to replace human perception, or visualization ability, with artificial intelligence. For instance, at a mine, the equipment may be moved fully automatically, but tasks requiring precision, such as bucket filling, are carried out remotely by an operator sitting in a control room,” says Halme.
Developments in mining equipment epitomize the evolutionary trend of smart machinery, which aims to improve the performance of existing machinery.
“The development of the machinery, raising the degree of automation, and finding suitable solutions for the markets are the deciding factors for both the objectives of the evolutionary line of development and the competitiveness of the companies using the machinery.”
Another trend is as its name says – revolutionary. Instead of developing existing equipment, it aims to find completely new types of applications.
“The revolutionary trend will change people’s everyday lives considerably in the future. For example, the so-called service robots will carry out tasks that people, for some reason or another, do not wish to do. Automatic vacuum cleaners can clean the house, waste sorting centers can be automated, and various military tasks can be performed using robots.”
However, profitability and the markets form a threshold to generating new kinds of products. “At the moment, technology and science are moving way ahead of the productized applications already in operation. This is largely due to the fact that revolutionary applications are always new, and there is not necessarily a market for them yet. Still, there are plenty of development projects underway,” says Halme.
Blue-sky thinking, social effects
Emerging robotics will probably bring with it opportunities that were previously beyond the reach of humans. What seems impossible today may be the norm in the future thanks to intelligent machines. Halme regards the role of intelligent machines as significant for instance in creating the conditions for space research.
“We have already studied the possible applications of intelligent machines in the construction of space stations and bases in cooperation with the ESA (European Space Agency) and all the major countries have corresponding projects underway at the moment.”
Another of Halme’s future visions is related to catastrophe management. “Robotics could have been used to prevent or at least considerably reduce the effects of recent nuclear plant incidents. In the cases of Fukushima and Chernobyl, in my opinion, it was a disgrace that technology had still not been developed enough at the practical level for the power plants to be given critical first aid.” The development of machines will inevitably also change our current society. It will become possible to transfer unpleasant, dangerous, and monotonous jobs to machines, and people will be able to concentrate on other kinds of tasks. The negative side of this is usually considered to be the possibility of an increase in unemployment.
“In the 1980s, automation through robotics was perhaps adopted in the European automotive industry too quickly, and this gave rise to massive unemployment. However, it survived this and the targeted competitiveness increased considerably,” Halme reflects.
Nevertheless, the overall picture of the potential of intelligent machines to create new growth rises above scenarios related to individual applications.
“Research and development into intelligent machines is a growth area with huge potential, which may lead us not only to find effective solutions for industry, but also for instance new consumer products like the cell phone. In this way, we also have the opportunity to generate new prosperity,” says Halme.
TEXT: TOTTI TOISKALLIO PHOTO: SINI PENNANEN
Aarne Halme is an internationally renowned scientist, currently working as the head of the Centre of Excellence in Generic Intelligent Machines Research in Aalto-university, located in Helsinki, Finland. His resumé includes over 200 publications from the field of automation and systems technology.