Technology has come a long way since robots were first introduced into the automotive industry more than 50 years ago.

However, although robots can weld, paint and assemble car parts, they are still far from becoming equivalent to human workers, said Taskin Padir, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University.

“The robots we have that are currently state-of-the-art do not come anywhere close to human capabilities, in terms of accuracy and control said Padir. “We still need to make significant improvements on that front.”

One of the biggest challenges is duplicating the extremely fine finger and hand motions humans can perform.

Robots simply don’t have the dexterity required to do tasks that are simple for humans, such as tie a knot, strip the casing off a cable, insert a pin in a hole or use a hand tool such as a drill, said Padir.

In addition, today’s robots lack perception of the world around them and the ability to adjust their actions if their environment changes.

“We still needed to work quite a bit on a robot’s perception so a robot can look at a tabletop and figure out OK, here is the screwdriver, here is the part that I am assembling, so I better pick up the screwdriver and start working on,” said Padir. “Currently what we do is pre-program all of these actions in a sequence that a robot acts out. However, if something goes wrong, or something is out of sequence or place, the robot get confused. We need to make improvements both in terms of hardware and software so that robots can autonomously perform tasks that human’s perform today.”

Padir’s research group at Northeastern University is working to do just that. They are focused on creating software that makes robots more autonomous, so eventually they are able to perform tasks on their own with little human supervision or intervention.

As part of this research they are working on NASA’s Valkyrie Robot, a cutting-edge humanoid robot that can walk and has dexterous arms and hands. NASA awarded only two research labs the opportunity to work with this technology, Padir’s and another at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The highly complex system provides the lab plenty of opportunities to investigate all the different challenges of creating a more human-like robot. Using the Valkyrie Robot, Padir’s lab is working on creating motion using combinations of arm, wrist, finger and thumb movements that collectively accomplish a task. They hope their work can eventually be applied across multiple industries.

“NASA gave us the hardware, but we are developing more autonomy, more software on this robot. When we got this robot, I always said it was a baby, and now we adding more intelligence to the robot so it can perform tasks on its own,” said Padir. “For NASA, we are focusing more on space exploration type of tasks, but we are also taking advantage of having this robot in our laboratory to solve tasks related to healthcare, manufacturing and so on.”

Why create a more human-like robot?

Critics argue that if robotic technology advances too much, the human job market will suffer. Padir disagrees.

“We will see these robots in applications that are too dangerous, daring, or distant for humans to handle,” said Padir.

Reliable robots with human-like dexterity and improved autonomy could take over jobs at a nuclear facility, for example, he explained. Currently, humans wearing productive gear can only enter areas with dangerous nuclear material for a brief period of time to do a task before having to exit and wait a safe period of time before reentering. This not only puts a human employee at risk, but it also slows down whatever task is trying to be accomplished. However, a more human-like robot could be around nuclear material continuously, allowing them to complete necessary tasks quicker without any human risk.

In the healthcare industry robots could also replace human technicians handling extremely infectious diseases, said Padir. In space travel, robots could be sent on a mission first to gather information, so that human astronauts are not put a risk. They could then return with human astronauts to assist them in tasks that may be difficult or dangerous for humans to attempt on their own.

Padir is aware that as robotic technology advances, robots may start to become utilized in jobs that are more routine in the manufacturing, transportation, and other industries. However, he thinks this will actually benefit, not hurt, the job market as a whole.

“It is a good thing, it doesn’t mean that we are necessarily taking away jobs; somebody will have to maintain these robots, someone will have to supervise the robots, said Padir. “Robots will create more jobs, just with different skill sets. The solution is that we need to educate more people, and when we do, these people will then have the opportunity to make more money.”