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  • Matthew Chang

Your Future Colleague Just Might Be a Robot

By Matthew A. Chang

Imagine this: You’re walking into a hospital room. Behind you, you hear a sound. When you turn around, you see that a small robot has followed you in. That robot has a tray of amenities. You take a bottle of water, a snack, and a sleeping kit. As much as you’re nervous to be here, you like that little robot.

That robot, let’s call him Marty, has already had a busy day. He delivered sheets, towels, and a cleaning kit to the housekeepers to make sure your room was ready. When it’s time for your procedure, your hospital bed autonomously rolls down the hallway under its own power. When it arrives at the operating room, you’re also met by a surgery kit. That surgery kit was packed in an ecommerce fulfillment center, and it has a matching barcode to your chart. The nurse scans the kit and scans the chart to confirm the match.

As you lay there in that hospital bed, you marvel that people don’t really pick things up anymore. People don’t really carry things. Well, sure they do. But all the routine tasks have been automated. I tell you that story to introduce the topic today: In the future, your coworker will be a robot.

This is also a personal story to me because my own mother was a hospital nurse for 40 years. She retired in 2021 as part of the Great Resignation.  During her time in service, she suffered three workers’ compensation injuries. With the technology I just described, all of those injuries could have been avoided.

Now, when I say that your coworker will be a robot, you might think of the big yellow robot arms in Detroit. Or you might think of the swarm of robotics in the Amazon fulfillment center. Those robots execute all day, every day, on exactly what they are told according to a preprogrammed script. They’re separated from humans by a chain link fence or a guardrail.

So, I’m not talking about legacy automation. I’m talking about robots that are designed to work directly with humans to keep pace and understand human movements, including pedestrian movements. We all know that when we show up for work, we adapt to those conditions. That’s what it means to be human. That’s human nature.

However, the new generation of robotics is different. We call them collaborative robots, or “cobots” for short, and they work with you in your job to make your life easier. It’s important to understand exactly where we’re at in the industry today. And I’m going to make some predictions for the future. So, by the end of this conversation, I want everyone in this generation and the next to have made some new decisions about how they want to work with technology. Because, like it or not, it’s coming.

Currently, leading companies are deploying robots in everyday workspaces. I’ve got a couple of stories for you, each of which is happening within a couple of miles from my house and around the area of Jacksonville.

The first is a dry cleaner who has installed a robotic dry-cleaning system that handles the clothes robotically. This robotic dry-cleaning system has increased the quantity of clothes the company can keep in storage. It has improved employee ergonomics, and it has cut down on lost clothing.

As an added benefit, when your clothes are ready, it sends you a text message, and you can go to a kiosk 24/7 to retrieve your clothing. Of course, if you’re like me and you prefer the manual pickup at the counter, you are always greeted by an employee who has a smile. That employee is smiling because they don’t need to go and fetch garments from the maze of clothing anymore.

My favorite part of this story is that the owner of this dry cleaner is an 80-year-old woman. When I asked her what she was thinking when she invested in a robotic dry-cleaning system, she told me it was a no-brainer. She said she’s making more money, that her customers love it, and that her employees are happy.

The second story I have for you is a dental office. This dental office has invested in a robotic tooth manufacturing system. And an AI software program. The dentist puts a camera in your mouth and takes photos. The AI program stitches those photos together to create a 3d model of your teeth. The dentist can then diagnose your bite, design a tooth repair, or even plan for a tooth replacement. Let’s take a complex procedure such as a crown. The dentist tells the AI software to generate a proposed 3d model of the crown. The dentist then modifies the 3d model for best fit, comfort, and durability. After he’s done, he turns the screen around so that you can see it in the chair. And after you’ve approved the design of the tooth, he sends it to a 3d printer. The 3d printer spends 10 minutes in production, then 10 minutes in baking, and presto, your tooth repair is finished. What used to be a two-week procedure is now complete in two hours.

When I asked this dentist if he was happy with his investment in automation, he said that he’s making more money and that the patient spends less time in the chair and requires fewer touch points with the office staff. He also said that based on the success and the client feedback of being in and out in a single morning, he’s thinking of opening a clinic focused solely on complex tooth repairs that can be accomplished in a single day by using robotics and AI.

The third example I have for you is from a healthcare facility here in Jacksonville. This healthcare facility started a robotic journey when they did time trial studies of nurses by using a stopwatch. What they soon realized is that in a hospital setting, the nurses spend 40% of their time fetching things or searching through supply closets. Imagine what could happen if they could reclaim that time to spend on patient care and patient outcomes. The learned hospital nurses traveled, on average, six miles per shift — the same distance a professional soccer player will travel in a single match. But the professional soccer player doesn’t do this on concrete floors, while often also carrying things or pushing things. How much more energized would our nursing staff be if they didn’t have to travel that much? If you want to solve the national nursing shortage, cobots are part of the solution.

In each of these stories, perhaps the most important part of the overall equation is what it achieves for the workers. I’ve been designing and installing robotic systems for six years, and I can tell you that, for the most part, workers love this. Among other things, they can upskill their roles with programming, troubleshooting, and maintenance skills. This makes them more marketable and allows them to command higher wages.

Does every employee want to work with robots? No. However, the emergence of cobots will also open new opportunities in quality assurance, safety, and customer service. For the workers who want to work with their hands, agile and handy workers will always be in high demand. We are never going to automate 100 percent of our tasks. And yes, we also need a resilient workforce to step in during the times when the power goes out. For the next ten years, we’re going to be in the early adoption phase of cobots and robots in the workplace. Leading-edge employers and companies will be investing strategically in both the technology that is mature today and ready for action while also having an eye to the future for the technology that soon emerges to unlock the next layer of manual tasks.

And as for that little hospital robot, Marty, you are sure to love him when he can bring you hot, delicious food and a cold beverage. And not wake you while you’re asleep.

This article is excerpted from Chang’s TedX presentation in Jacksonville, Florida, in December 2023. The video recording of that presentation is available here.

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