The Future of Digital Technologies & How We Interact With Them

robot hand and human hand touching

It’s world engineering day today (4th March), the day UNESCO have dedicated to celebrate engineers and engineering! 

This is a great opportunity to reflect on past achievements in the engineering world and to think about the innovation that will help sustain and improve the future of engineering.

It’s important to think about our relationship with technology, how does it make us feel? Does it frustrate us? Does it make us feel inferior? What is the best way to interact with it?

In order to incorporate digital technologies into our lives further, and to optimise the advantages of these clever tools we need to spend time with them, we need to understand them, and we need to think about the psychological aspects of integrating with them.

I am lucky enough to work with a group of engineers that spend their lives researching and teaching many aspects of digital manufacturing technologies (DMTs). The team (AKA DigiTOP) are currently working hard to develop a Toolkit that will optimise productivity between human workers and robots.

The more I learn about the research, the more exciting it is! The researchers use sensor technologies in order to measure blink rate, heart rate, breathing rate and facial temperature of an operator whilst they are working. They analyse the data and determine how the operator is interacting with the technology. Are they getting fatigued, are they ‘mind wandering’? Do they need more frequent breaks, does the robot need to slow down, or speed up in order to match the operators speed? These are all important aspects of digital technology to consider as they can help improve performance and productivity in the manufacturing industry, and we all know how important this is to our economy and future generations.

There are also the ethical, organisational and social impacts that need to be considered! Do we trust robots? How do we connect emotionally to these devices? Are they safe? Does this technology recognise the privacy of the user? These are all very important questions when designing digital tech. There’s a very interesting paper ‘Responsible Domestic Robots’ that looks at these kind of questions in more depth, it definitely raises important issues that I hadn’t previously considered.

The DigiTOP research is continuing to develop and will complete in Summer 2022. By then, the team would have fully developed the DigiTOP Toolkit which contains resources to support work with a range of DMTs in joint-cognitive manufacturing systems, including digital twins, virtual/augmented reality, industrial robotics, collaborative robotics, human-centred/physiological sensing for operator state monitoring and system-oriented sensing. This research will  help to determine how digital technologies can be optimised for manufacturing system performance. I’m very excited to see the Toolkit when it’s fully developed and how the research can be used to benefit the manufacturing industry.

DigiTOP is funded by EPSRC and is also in collaboration with BAE Systems, Babcock International, and Jaguar Land Rover.

The team actively welcome feedback on the Toolkit, this will help shape the second phase. If you are an academic or work in the manufacturing industry and would like to get involved please get in touch via the DigiTOP website.

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