Automation Solution: Humans and Robots Working Together?

Automation Solution: Humans and Robots Working Together?

Among the many reasons why I’m glad I’m my own boss, knowing I’ll never fire myself for being obsolete ranks high! But there are many jobs out there that are threatened by mass automation — from the obvious data entry gigs and telemarketing to the startling library technician jobs, and, I’m sure, personal assistants.
But new research is showing that replacing all human employees in industrial working environments with automation is — against all assumptions — not the most efficient option. 
A co-pro between the Universities of Göttingen, Duisburg-Essen, and Trier, the study has recently been published in the International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies. In it, the team presented a challenge to three different teams of workers, sporting varying levels of automation.
“The research team simulated a process from production logistics, such as the typical supply of materials for use in the car or engineering industries. A team of human drivers, a team of robots and a mixed team of humans and robots were assigned transport tasks using vehicles. The time they needed was measured. The results were that the mixed team of humans and robots were able to beat the other teams; this coordination of processes was most efficient and caused the fewest accidents. This was quite unexpected, as the highest levels of efficiency are often assumed to belong to those systems that are completely automated.”
These results give a ray of hope to humans currently working in industrial fields who have thought, until now, that robots would be taking over their positions. The combo — of human logistical capacity, and the tolerance of repetitive tasks — could be well nigh unstoppable.
This is certainly a rosier vision of the automated future than we have been led to believe. While we’re nowhere near the fifteen-hour workweek predicted by John Maynard Keynesin the early 20th century, neither are we staring down the barrel of life under Skynet. Here’s to a future for both humans and robots, working together to make life better for all!

A Rose By Any Other Name


I love this part of spring — all the early snowdrops and crocuses have had their time, and the gardens are now filled with my favourites: showstopping tulips. It’s early enough that I’m still surprised by their presence. Soon we’ll be seeing all kinds of wonderful summerflowers in our neck of the woods, including roses of all stripes.
A team out of the University of Texas at Austin has taken inspiration from nature and looked to the rose for help with one of humanity’s biggest problem: sourcing clean water. The team sought a more efficient method of solar steaming — a process by which the heat of the sun is used to evaporate water up and away from contaminants, then collected and condensed back into clean drinking water. (Much like the principle of the solar still in that episode of Voyage of the Mimi.)
Current solar steaming technology is generally bulky and stationary. In order to have a real effect on water quality and availability in places it’s needed, portability and efficiency are key. The new system attempts to remedy this. As outlined by the team in a recent issue of Advanced Materials the solar steamer is inspired by an origami rose, featuring “petals” made of black paper coated with polypyrrole, all surrounding a collection tube that acts much like a stem. From UT Austin’s press release:
“[Leader Donglei (Emma)] Fan and her team experimented with a number of different ways to shape the paper to see what was best for achieving optimal water retention levels. They began by placing single, round layers of the coated paper flat on the ground under direct sunlight. The single sheets showed promise as water collectors but not in sufficient amounts. After toying with a few other shapes, Fan was inspired by a book she read in high school. Although not about roses per se, ‘The Black Tulip’ by Alexandre Dumas gave her the idea to try using a flower-like shape, and she discovered the rose to be ideal. Its structure allowed more direct sunlight to hit the photothermic material – with more internal reflections – than other floral shapes and also provided enlarged surface area for water vapor to dissipate from the material.”

The device decontaminates the water from bacteria, heavy metals, and sea salt, and makes it fit for human drinking according to standards set out by the World Health Organization. Again, science looks toward the designs of nature for solutions to our problems. It is fitting that the rose — the harbinger of summer, subject of poetry carrier of centuries of symbolism  — should find its form harnessed for our very human needs!