In a boost for human-robot interaction, a new algorithm developed at MIT gives robots the inside track on human movements – making working together far easier.

Last year, researchers from MIT and BMW tried different methods to enable robots and humans to assemble car parks alongside each other. They found robots being overly cautious though, and freezing a long time in advance of expecting a human to cross their path – the result of being programmed to pause when someone walked by them. The knock on effect of this happening time after time would create the types of inefficiencies robots are employed to help minimise.

Identifying where a person was heading to wasn’t the issue, the team discovered, it was that the robots were struggling to judge the time a human would spend at any given point. To overcome the time problems, the MIT team has pioneered an algorithm capable of calculating the motion timings.

“This algorithm builds in components that help a robot understand and monitor stops and overlaps in movement, which are a core part of human motion,” explains Julie Shah, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “This technique is one of the many way we’re working on robots better understanding people.”

The algorithm has the potential to make an impact beyond the factory floor: offering improved interaction in a variety of settings.

“This technique could apply to any environment where humans exhibit typical patterns of behaviour,” Shah added. “The key is that the [robotic] system can observe patterns that occur over and over, so that it can learn something about human behaviour. This is all in the vein of work of the robot better understand aspects of human motion, to be able to collaborate with us better.”

Breakthroughs such as these contribute to the constantly evolving human-robot dynamic transforming what constitutes work and the reality of everyday life. We have posted several articles on these pages about this, pointing to the role robots can have in removing the monotony from our day jobs, for example.

While robots won’t wipe humans off the map of the working world, and will in some circumstances help create new employment opportunities, the radical societal revolution they are triggering demands governments and businesses drastically rethink how they do things. That means taking actions like moving to universal basic income for citizens as quickly as possible.

The simple truth here is, and it is something to be celebrated, not wrongly headlined to install fear, is that humans are not robots, we’ve just been waiting for more capable real robots to come along and carry out the repetitive tasks that need done, to free us up to invest in being human; to focus more on fixing human problems, dedicate the valuable new time robotics can provide to adopting behavioural changes that truly work for the planet. Policies like universal basic income can help pave the way.