Mary SciannaClick image to enlargeIn the 2015 British science fiction thriller Ex Machina, a programmer who works for the world’s most popular search engine is asked by the company’s eccentric CEO to administer the Turing test to a humanoid robot he has created, called Ava.

The Turing test was devised by British researcher Alan Turing in 1950. To pass the test, a machine must convince a human “evaluator” that it too is human or has human-like responses. The test is a key concept behind the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Without spoiling the plot, the humanoid robot passes the test.

In the real world, what role will the thinking robot play in the manufacturing industry? Collaborative robots, “smart” software and advanced automation are already operating in manufacturing plants around the world and their presence will continue to grow to help companies remain competitive. Yet thinking robots present a new realm of possibilities (and challenges) for manufacturers. Like their ancestors from the 21st Century, they eliminate human error in critical processes and they can work around the clock, free of fatigue. Yet the thinking robot of the future will have the ability to do much more. It will have the ability to assess and analyze processes and make adjustments when necessary. And unlike today’s smart systems that require a programmer to create the algorithms for specific software, these thinking robots will be the programmers that create the new algorithms. And over time, like their human cohorts of the past, they will learn to “think outside the box” but in a way humans never could. Their vast database of knowledge stored within them will allow them to create innovative ways to design and build a product or refine a process.

Of course, we are a long way off from the thinking robot. Indeed, some scoff at the idea that a robot can ever become human-like. After all, robots are based on a digital platform built on a series of transistors, while the human brain relies on neurons to perform its functions, like learning, thinking, remembering and perceiving.

And while a thinking robot may present some tremendous advantages to manufacturing competitiveness, there are also significant challenges. At its core, the thinking robot is still a machine, albeit a sophisticated one, and like all machines, it can malfunction. If tomorrow’s manufacturers relied primarily on thinking robots to operate their plants, what would happen if they malfunctioned and became

Thinking robots will have a place in tomorrow’s manufacturing plants, but the more likely scenario is that they will work hand-in-hand with humans, much like collaborative robots do today, but in a much more advanced way. Humans will continue to play a significant role in decision making and management processes, and like today’s smart technologies, robots will help humans become much more effective.

As for Ava, the humanoid robot in Ex-Machina, she may one day be your future employee. SMT

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