AI Is Making Robots Smarter. They’ll Need Boundaries.

Artificial intelligence is sweeping across the economy. It’s showing up in the stock market with Nvidia’s meteoric rise, and the marketing blitz around AI is inescapable, whether from software providers peddling the promise of harnessed data to golf-club makers trumpeting an AI design. Narrow AI is now a real tool, and companies are figuring out how to deploy it.

Generative AI, virtual assistants and self-driving vehicles are some early use cases of the technology. Workers are being freed from tedious data-entry tasks such as extracting pertinent information from an email to fill an order and send a receipt. Software can scoop up financial data from public filings more quickly than a human and provide an instant synopsis. Most of this revolution is taking place in offices on company computers.

Where AI meets the physical world — and creates the potential for conflicts — is in manufacturing and logistics. Robots are already roaming factory and warehouse floors, and AI will make them smarter and more agile. As is usually the case with new technology, the military is prodding innovation. This marriage of AI and robots will require special rules to keep them constrained by humans, especially as these mobile machines move beyond the confines of a factory and become more prevalent in the service economy.

The AI applications now offered on mobile robots are for simple tasks, but they will only become more complex over time. Teradyne Inc., which owns Universal Robots and Mobile Industrial Robots, sells a mobile pallet jack armed with five cameras that give it “sight” and a Nvidia chip that helps it “think” how best to pick up a pallet, even if it sits crooked or is damaged.

The industry is in the early stages of producing general-purpose robots that will be able to accept verbal commands and process them into the code needed to carry out a specific task. While industrial robots programmed for repetitive tasks will always have their place, the versatility of general-purpose robots will make them popular if manufacturers drive down the price to make them competitive with hourly workers. Formic Technologies Inc. leases industrial robots to companies and offers one that stacks boxes on a pallet for about $15 an hour with maintenance included. AI can already write code from a process-flow diagram that spells out each step of a task with boxes and arrows. It won’t be long before it will only require clear verbal commands.