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Making Robots That Can See

Will RFID or vision technologies be used to identify objects on an assembly line?
By Mark Roberti
Sep 17, 2012Last month, I read an interesting article published by The New York Times regarding a new generation of robots that employ vision technologies to perform manufacturing tasks more quickly and more accurately than humans possibly could (see Skilled Work, Without the Worker). The writer, John Markoff, describes a Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China in which hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers, and another factory in the Netherlands in which 128 robot arms perform the same work with yoga-like flexibility. "Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human," the article explains.

Markoff goes on to say that "rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide array of manual jobs within the abilities of robots," and he discusses the implications for employment in manufacturing during the coming years. I have long believed that robots would increasingly be able to do many of the jobs humans do today, but I thought it would be radio frequency identification technology that would transform these machines.

One challenge facing robots has been flexibility. They could be built to perform a single task repeatedly, but not to distinguish between, say, a red or blue bicycle seat to be put on a frame. A tag with a unique serial number could be attached to each seat, while a reader on the robot's arm would allow it to easily distinguish between the two. The Times article suggests that vision technologies might make that possible as well.

Does that mean RFID will not be used? I've been pondering that question for the past few weeks, and here's what I've concluded. Robots will, through the power of computer processing, increasingly attain the capabilities of humans. So if a person can execute a task effectively using their eyes, robots will likely utilize vision technologies. If humans cannot use their eyes, then robots won't be able to use vision.

Let me provide a couple of examples to explain.

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