"Robots cultivate fields better"

ETH researcher Roland Siegwart talks about where machines are ahead of people – and where they are not. 

Mr. Siegwart: Robots who do our work for us make people anxious. What do you say about that?

These machines are not very intelligent. They can do simple, repetitive tasks – not usually the kind of work people like to do. That’s why automation raises our standard of living. Working in mines several miles below the ground is not something humans should have to do. Robots should do it instead.

What will robots still not be able to do better than us for the next hundred years?

Computers can collect and analyze data, but doing creative things with it? That remains the gratifying task of humans.

It never gets bored, it never gets tired, and it never makes mistakes: YuMi relieves peopel of routine activities
It never gets bored, it never gets tired, and it never makes mistakes: YuMi relieves peopel of routine activities

How far has research progressed?

We’re trying to make robots more autonomous so that they can get along in daily environments – in autonomous vehicles, for instance. This makes traffic significantly safer because computers always pay full attention.The ability to learn is also a major field of research. A computer in an autonomous vehicle has to be able to differentiate between the image of a person and that of an animal or a post.

You know ABB’s YuMi from your laboratory. What kind of robot is it?

YuMi belongs to the next generation of robots that are able to emerge from their sheltered production facilities and enter our day-to-day environments where they can work together with people. This robot, for example, can attach certain parts in the assembly of smartphones and watches. But whenever the human touch is needed, humans take over.

Is there a robot you would like to invent?

The first question is, what do we find tiresome? An automated system which could do our laundry or clear the table would be quite nice. The other question is: what do we really need? We need things like more food for a steadily growing global population – that’s one thing. Robots can cultivate fields better: drones fly over arable lands, analyze them, and then are able to sow, irrigate, fertilize, and harvest more precisely.


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