Robotics in a Post-Pandemic World


Robotics in a Post-Pandemic World

June 12, 2020

The shadow of COVID-19 pandemic is likely to prevail for some time and is expected to leave some permanent changes in the way we work and conduct businesses. Some of the major behavioral changes brought on by the current global health crisis include the practice of social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding crowded spaces, limiting physical touch points in shared spaces, periodic cleaning and disinfection of self and environment, and remote working. Physical proximity with people, especially strangers will have a perceived risk.  Transacting online may be considered safer than doing it in person. Being in a closed and connected place such as centrally air-conditioned buildings, which have shared air and touchable surfaces, will be considered risky. Digital will become the default and physical transactions will need justification. Broadband connectivity has already been added to the list of essential societal needs. Many of these factors influence behavioral changes that impact multiple ways in our lives as consumers, office staff, factory workers, manufacturers, managers, hospital staff, and many other roles.

Change in Public Perception

A survey by Interactions LLC, a US based AI company, observes that in this pandemic period, people’s perception about AI and Robotics have changed noticeably. For example, the acceptance level of talking to an AI chatbot and seeking support from a robot in grocery store has gone up. It also reveals that in general people are more comfortable with robotic deliveries than riding a driverless car.

As people density at workplaces needs to be controlled to follow social distancing guidelines, robots can step-in and share some of the workload with humans. They can also work in adverse conditions and are amenable to periodic self-disinfection to be safe to work at closer distances with human co-workers.  People who are kept out of their physical workspaces due to social distancing could access workspaces remotely and perform their jobs through robotic telepresence and teleoperation. We have seen several instances of robots performing variety of tasks such as disinfection of indoor and outdoor spaces, delivery of food and medicine, cleaning, cooking, serving, sorting, packing, shipping, assembling, inspecting, conversing and many more such tasks.

Robots Can When Humans Can’t

Post-COVID-19, people will continue to travel, but it may not be to the same extent. Businesses may switch to tele-presence wherever possible. The passenger capacity available with various transportation modes could reduce due to social distancing, and escalation in travel costs due to limited capacity, as well as mandatory requirements such as health certification, screening at entry/exit points and quarantine regulations will all drive down travel.

Can people use their robotic avatar to attend meetings, conferences, exhibitions, servicing a faulty machine, inspecting a construction site, giving medical consultation, performing surgery and many more such activities from their home or local workplace? Can people use such an avatar to visit tourist spots, go for a trek, climb a tower, drive a boat and so on without moving from their desk at home but share an immersive experience?  Students and researchers who need physical space exploration for their investigations could use a telerobot to work remotely and perform such studies. Areas like botany, zoology, geology, oceanography, forensics, and archaeology will benefit from such remote exploration. 

Wide acceptance and facilitation of remote working will allow reverse migration from cities to towns or villages and help decongest cities. To make this reverse migration sustainable, there has to be quality broadband communication infrastructure available for people to carry out remote work. Telecom operators will tap into this opportunity and expand their networks further with 4G and 5G technologies, and value-added services.

There is indeed a surge in interest and demand for considering robots for automation in multiple fields. There is also a hype around autonomous robots and their human-like capabilities. However, most existing robots are able to do relatively simple tasks with a narrow scope of automation, that too in highly structured environments. Recent advancements in AI and computing technologies are speeding up the capabilities of autonomous robots to do much more complex tasks in unstructured environments. There is also a path involving humans in the loop for semi-autonomous and teleoperated robots to work collaboratively to accomplish more complex tasks demanded by industry today, without waiting for fully autonomous robots to evolve.  There are many more options available, but it’s up to us humans to decide how to leverage this technology at a time that marks the unfolding of a new beginning.  But more about this is to follow in my next blog.

Dr. Balamuralidhar P is a Principal Scientist in Embedded Systems and Robotics Research, TCS Research and Innovation, at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. (TCS). He has over 30 years of research and development experience in Systems for Signal Processing, Communications, and the Internet of Things. His major areas of current research include different aspects of Cyber Physical Systems, Cognitive Robotics, and Embedded AI.