The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Marc Dassler, CEO and co-founder of Energy Robotics, a developer of software solutions for mobile inspection robots, which is headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany. Dassler spoke about how robots can help solve the demographic crisis, where they are most useful, and obstacles to further uptake.
Patrick Grady: Many developed countries are facing, or will soon face, a “demographic crisis” as the workforce ages. How do you see robots helping to solve this?
Marc Dassler: First of all, we need to be clear on the magnitude of the problem. We’re facing a massive problem now with the Baby Boomer generation starting to retire next year. In Germany in 2023, 1.145 million people will retire as the first slice of the Baby Boomer generation, and approximately only 700,000 are following up in the job market. That’s a huge discrepancy that will just get bigger going forward. Over the next years, more people will retire, and fewer people will enter the job market—that holds true for most of Europe. So we need to ensure that the highly educated workforces we have are moving to more value-generating tasks. That’s where robotics comes in. We have seen in the last industrial revolution robotics take away jobs that are not adding so much value to the value chain while maintaining mass employment in the economy.
Grady: Which industries are set to benefit most immediately from robotic fleets?
Dassler: We need to look at what we mean by robotics. Software robots—AI—are obviously having an impact across many industries. On the hardware side, we expect uptake for those tasks which are highly paid, have a high risk, and are very repetitive. There’s an industry saying for these kinds of tasks: “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” You actually want to make sure that you remove the humans from these tasks because you don’t want people getting injured or dying on the job. These tasks are easier for robots because they can repeat everything tirelessly and with high precision. For all those tasks where you have a high repetition, a high risk for the human, and where the price point is right, you already see that robots are moving in. Right now, we see that in oil, gas, chemical, power, and utility industries and also for security and surveillance.
Grady: What are some of the main obstacles blocking the transition from remote to fully autonomous robot fleets?
Dassler: What is missing is an AI that has an intuitive understanding of the world. We don’t have that yet. Robots can go take a picture of a millimeter measure, look at the flange, and check if they’re tripping, etc. You can encode that into a robot, which will do it perfectly. But robots will still pass busted pipes because they weren’t programmed to identify those. So you have a limitation on what you can get out of the robot.
On the other side, regarding the hardware, you need to have robots that are fully capable of operating in a human-made environment right. Right now, we have a lot of robots that are already walking, but they’re based on four legs, which is a really solid platform for operating and wheeled robots, which are cheaper and therefore more attractive from the business point of view. But if you really want to get everything out of it, you need to have humanoid robots. We built the world for humans and not for robots with four legs or four wheels. So the next evolution, in the next two to three years, will be the first humanoid robots, available for a price tag that is interesting for the industry to use.
Grady: How do digital twins—digital representations of the real world—support robot functionalities?
Dassler: Our robots generate their own digital twins, which are later combined with your customer’s digital twins. There are different layers in there. Our robots are the closest twin to reality because they need to operate in the real world. There are more abstract digital twins, which are fine for operating a plant but not for sending a robot around. Hence, we solve this problem by merging these twins together to operate the plant and the robots within.
Let me give you a simple example. You have a pump in your abstract digital twin when it was planned five years ago—this pump is not at that position; it’s like 20 centimeters left or right. So our robots need to cope with that and understand that something has changed. It’s one of the challenges we take on for the next year and probably for a couple of years to bring those kinds of very abstract digital parts together with the reality the robots are living in.
Grady: In pop culture, especially film and TV, robots are often presented as scary or otherwise maligned to human interests. How does Energy Robotics ensure human operators trust the machines they operate?
Dassler: If you look around, there’s also a lot of very friendly robots! Think about Johnny 5 or WALL-E. For everything that humans have produced and evolved, there are always two faces of a coin. For us, it’s really important we pledge that we will never weaponize a robot because we believe that’s the wrong way to do it. We always work on safety procedures to make sure that the robot is not doing harm in any case. Our focus is clearly on making robots safe to use as well as ensuring we relieve humans from dull, dangerous, and dirty jobs. We want to remove humans from hazardous environments because that’s where we want to see the most benefit for society.
It is also about making sure humans are taking care of society and being part of society. That’s why I believe we should not push robots into areas where they need to continuously monitor humans. Do you want to be monitored by a robot? I don’t, and I think no one wants to. Therefore, let’s not push that.