A robot as a new colleague
Roeland van Oers
Social robots are here. You hear about them everywhere, but have you already seen robots in your area? Have you already seen one at other companies or competitors? Or will you be the first person to bring in a robot as your new colleague?
On the cusp of a turning point
Social robots can do so much. Development in robotics has really taken off: they are becoming smarter, they are better at observing things and have been given fine motor skills that make them more human-like. Therefore, we are now on the cusp of a turning point: it won’t be long before they truly walk or drive into our lives – not only in your own home (such as vacuum cleaner or lawnmower robots) but also where you work.
Is it also something for your organization?
Companies are coming to the realization that robots provide tremendous opportunities. For instance, robots can ensure that we work much more efficiently. Think about a crane operator who could only operate one crane in the past, but who could now easily operate 3 cranes at the same time. A robot can also do things we can’t do, such as lifting very heavy objects, or simply working 24 hours a day. All those possibilities appeal to our imagination: what could our world look like if these mechanical helpers become ubiquitous?
Have you already thought about how you could use robots in your organization? They are already fully integrated in factories and in the logistics sector, but robots are now being developed in such a manner that they could be invaluable to the services sector. Think about reception robots, robots that accompany people to the right room, or robots that deliver packages or healthy snacks to everyone.
Are you interested but you have no idea how to go about setting up such a project? If you are at the forefront of a new development, you can’t look at how your neighbors are doing it. You will have to develop the solution yourself. However, that’s the great thing about it: you can teach a robot everything by programming it for the tasks you think are useful.
Trial and error
At Decos we began developing our own reception robot a couple of years ago. We are learning so much from this project. As a developer, you often work based on assumptions, but you don’t actually know whether they are valid assumptions. For example, while developing our reception robot we assumed that visitors would be pleased to be greeted and approached proactively. But is that actually the case though? You can have very long discussions about it, but it is obviously a lot better to simply test it in an actual situation.
If you also want to develop your own robot application, and if I could give you a tip, that tip would be: work based on trial and error. Take a specific problem you want to solve with the robot and build a prototype robot as soon as possible that solves that problem. We are software developers, therefore we have purchased different types of robots (“hardware”) that we can program. During the design phase, you determine which tasks you want the robot to carry out along with the expected benefits. With the help of pilots, you will study which areas are experiencing progress. If you see the benefits during the pilot, the development is a success and you can continue on to the next feature. However, if not enough value was created, you make adjustments and test again. You keep following that same process until the robot functions the way it should.
When working on innovative projects, companies often still work with a business case. Obviously it is important to identify opportunities to add value, but there are so many variables involved in truly innovative developments that coming up with a comprehensive business case will give you a false sense of security. The reason is because you cannot predict how people will react to a robot and what the precise benefits will be. While developing the reception robot we noticed that people regularly greeted our robot when they arrived and said goodbye to it again when they left. We had not thought about that beforehand! Now we have programmed the robot to also say goodbye when someone leaves the building. However, the main test remains: are customers interested.
Just do it
A second tip: make sure you have the best possible team. This actually applies to all innovation projects, but I think it is even more important with robot projects because you are spending a lot of time testing. You need a lot of feedback. For example, we started collaborating with Receptel, a subsidiary of USG People, where we obtain a lot of very valuable information, such as what are all the things a receptionist must be able to do. Not every problem requires a difficult technical solution. A partner helps you see what does and doesn’t work.
A development project for social robots is really not that complicated. You just have to get started and experience it together. I have found that when working together, you can come up with wonderful projects that deliver fantastic results that you never would have thought about beforehand. I wish you the best of luck!
If you have any questions or you would like to share your experience, please contact me!