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China: Robot Predicts Co-workers’ Thoughts on an Assembly Line

A team of Chinese scientists claimed to have built an industrial robot that can read co-workers’ minds with 96% accuracy. If successful, this would be a massive leap in robotics. The researchers from Three Gorges University’s Intelligent Manufacturing Technology Center for Innovation in China have built an industrial robot that can read human intention. It does this by monitoring brain waves and muscle activity. The university-based developers tested the robot at an assembly factory but have not indicated if the intelligent mechanical device is ready for commercial use.

Published in the Chinese Journal of Mechanical Engineering and review, the study indicated that the smart machine was able to “recognise human intent” of co-workers with 96% accuracy, as per the developers. To get to read human intention, the industrial robot monitored the worker’s brain waves and collected electric signals from muscles. With this, the robot worked seamlessly together with human workers to assemble a complex product and, without a doubt, the results are nothing revolutionary.

In the journal, the Lead Robot Researcher of the project, Dong Yuanfa pointed out how much a collaborative robot or cobot can enhance the productivity of an assembly line or a factory, “In modern industrial manufacturing, assembly work accounts for 45% of the total workload, and 20%-30% of the total production cost.”

While promising, there are issues to be smoothed out. Although cobots could accelerate the pace of an assembly line, their application remained limited because “their ability to recognise human intention is often inaccurate and unstable”, the paper explained. As a workaround to this, the team of researchers implanted a non-invasive brain wave detector into the robot. Additionally, they had a series of sensors placed on the robot’s arms. To enhance it further, they had eight factory workers subject the robot to “hundreds of hours of training“.

The “hundreds of hours of training” included carefully putting together a product with co-workers – and this is where it got interesting. The workers do not need to issue verbal commands or make gestures when they needed a tool or material. The robot reacts “almost instantaneously”, picking up the needed item and delivering it.

Of course, the robot’s performance was far from being perfect. First and foremost, there’s the issue of signal intensity. Although the brainwave detector understood the volunteers’ intentions with up to 70% accuracy, the signal was relatively weak and the workers had to “focus hard” for the robot to receive a clear message. In short, it was a very intense and exhausting process.

On the other hand, the electrical signals from the muscles collected by the sensors in the arm were more stable.  The problem is they also lost their power. Worse, as the workers became tired, muscle readings become less reliable. According to the scientists, the combination of brain and muscle signals helped the robot to predict a person’s intentions with great accuracy.

Still, as the robot is untested in real-world settings outside the controlled space of an experiment, fielding them in an industrial plant may not be viable at this point in time.

China has continually been pushing the envelope when it comes to technology. Its digital economy is one proof of that. There may not be a place on the planet where QR codes are the biggest means of buying goods than in China. Additionally, the nation is developing a digital yuan that can be universally accepted all throughout the country in the near future, as reported on OpenGov Asia.

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SIRIM is a premier industrial research and technology organisation in Malaysia, wholly-owned by the Minister​ of Finance Incorporated. With over forty years of experience and expertise, SIRIM is mandated as the machinery for research and technology development, and the national champion of quality. SIRIM has always played a major role in the development of the country’s private sector. By tapping into our expertise and knowledge base, we focus on developing new technologies and improvements in the manufacturing, technology and services sectors. We nurture Small Medium Enterprises (SME) growth with solutions for technology penetration and upgrading, making it an ideal technology partner for SMEs.

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