Most of us are familiar with robotics in manufacturing related to industrial safety and performance. These robotics have been, for the most part, tucked away in factory lines and other industrial settings. But now, since the coronavirus, things have been changing. Real-time statistics website, “Worldometer,” states, “894,024 deaths as of September 7, 2020 worldwide.” The coronavirus outbreak put the spotlight on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the global human workforce, the risk to frontline workers, and the need for automation to reduce contact between humans to prevent the spread of the virus.
Japan has had to be ahead of the game because of its rapidly aging society with fewer children. The country is already equipped with a ‘national’ standardization JIS Y1001for robot-to-human interactions because of its labour shortages affecting all industries. Taking it one step further, Japan opened a consultation with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in a bid to establish ‘international’ standards for human-assisting robots. ISO’s existing TC 299 for “standardization in the field of robotics, excluding toys and military applications” does not consider the best practices for various settings which Japan’s standard does. For this reason, TC 299’s new working group is being headed by Japan to help ensure that the global standards for human-assisting robots is at least as robust as Japan’s national version.
Here’s a recap of the history of ISO/TC 299 as quoted from iso.org reflecting the increasing and broadening standardization activities in the field of robotics. “In 1983, the committee started as subcommittee SC 2 “Robots for manufacturing environment” under the Technical Committee ISO/TC 184 “Industrial Automation.” The initial efforts were primarily related to industrial safety with some activity in vocabulary and performance. As a result, the title was updated as “Robots for Industrial Environments.” The title was again updated to “Robots and Robotic Devices” to include not only industrial robots, but also non-industrial robots, which were defined as service robots in 2006. With increased robotic activity, greater visibility was needed for better coordination. This resulted in the upgrade to ISO/TC 299 with the title of “Robotics” in 2016.
What will robot-human smart cities of the future look like? With the partnership of Japan Post with Yamato, one of Japan’s door-to-door delivery services, robots and autonomous cars will soon be on the streets of Tokyo. This robot still needs to learn how to use elevators. But, that may not be too long a wait as world leading elevator company, ThyssenKrupp recently unveiled a communication interface to assist with robot delivery services. Also, in restaurants, your hot, steaming bowl of ramen will soon be served by a robot waiter as ramen chain, Kourakuen in Fukushima is initiating. The more familiar 4 foot tall Pepper robots designed by Softbank Robotics are humanoids designed to identify and react to human emotions, laughing at a joke, offering comfort or giving reminders. Patients quarantined at hotels in Tokyo found themselves comforted by Pepper saying, “I hope you recover as quickly as possible.” Or, “Please wear a mask inside.” They are also already used in banks, shops and hotels. The more time the system spends interacting with a person, the more natural the conversation becomes. These robots will be scaled up when better artificial intelligence is developed.
If Japan’s bid is successful in establishing international standards for human-assisting robots, it will be instrumental in exporting its standard to the rest of the world. It will be ahead of its global competitors in the cultivation of Japan-oriented collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ designed for direct interaction with humans to perform tasks outside of industrial automation applications such as customer service, cleaning, delivery, guide robots, nursing-care robots, assisting robots designed to help the elderly, or even to assist with surgery. With expansion overseas for industries to take advantage of, if we thought life adjustments after the pandemic were “the new world,” we ain’t seen nothing yet.