Human versus Machine, or Human plus Machine


We all have read or seen technologies that will eventually replace many human activities, and as a result, will lead to the elimination of jobs. These are not just “too hard for humans” types of activities which we historically handed over to machines, but also many tasks that humans can perform just fine. It is just that machines can perform them faster, cheaper, and sometimes even better. If you are wondering whether or not your job is at risk, go to and check the likelihood of automation for thousands of jobs.

But here I want to share examples of a different emerging trend, in which man and machine are working together to achieve amazing results.

Collaborative Robots

The first example is cobots or “collaborative robots”. If you see industrial robots in a factory, they are typically in a defined area with restricted access, so people don’t get hurt. They can perform a variety of activities by themselves, but they are not designed to work “with people”. 

Cobots, on the other hand, are designed to work with a person, leveraging the unique skills of both partners to achieve a task faster and with higher quality. The cobot takes on repetitive tasks like picking, screwing, placing, and packing, while the human focuses on more difficult aspects of assembly or inspection. 

Another big advantage of cobots is that they are designed to be safe. Equipped with lots of sensors, they do not perform their task with the kind of force that could hurt a human, but they stop what they do when they feel a touch or resistance. 

Current cobots are typically mounted in the workspace, but they may soon evolve to be mobile and move around the shop floor, respond to voice commands, and be able to perform an even wider range of tasks.

Wearable Robots

The second example is industrial exoskeletons or “wearable robots”. These devices mirror all or part of the human body and they can be worn like a harness or suit. Full-body exoskeletons may allow a worker to lift hundreds of pounds while still performing most of his natural movements. Partial exoskeletons may protect the back from strain or allow a worker to stoop down, sit, bend over, etc. with more ease. 

Preventing worker injury is a key benefit, but also allows workers to perform intensive tasks longer without fatigue. They come as powered or unpowered, rigid or soft varieties and they are emerging as a great alternative to full automation, which is often far more expensive. Several examples were recently featured at a Manufacturing Expo in Milwaukee, so this is no longer science fiction, but very real, realistic, and affordable technology.

Fusion of Man and Machine

The third category brings the fusion of man and machine to the next level. Research in the medical field aims to allow amputees to perform most, if not all, functions of a lost limb with prosthetics. We control our body with thoughts, which translate into electrical signals transmitted through our nervous system to the muscles. 

Modern devices are becoming very good at detecting these electrical signals and allow the wearer to essentially control their limb with their thoughts. Sensors in the artificial limb then create an electrical impulse which is sent back through the machine-body connection and create a “perception or feeling” of the action that was performed.  

Once this feedback loop has been perfected, there is no reason to limit the technology to amputees. Facebook invested $1 billion into a company that is decoding neural signals with the goal of building a mind-machine interface. We may soon learn to control devices (or exoskeletons) with our mere thoughts rather than having to push buttons, pull levers or give voice commands.  

Fifth Industrial Revolution (Industry 5.0)

While the Fourth Industrial Revolution is still in full swing, we are already seeing the beginning of the Fifth Industrial Revolution or Industry 5.0. Whereas 4.0 is focused on automation and connecting the information flows in our factories and supply chains, 5.0 emphasizes the harmony between human intelligence and cognitive computing. It is bringing humans back into industrial production with new skills and with a focus on higher-value tasks.

My hope is that these new technologies will evolve fast enough that we can start to think about and implement this “Human Plus Machine” vision before automation has driven too many humans out of the workplace.


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