ELI5: what is a cobot?

Typically, robots in the workplace have operated separately from humans. They took on the dirty, dangerous, or dull jobs, while human team members worked on other tasks.

Software (i.e., non-physical) bots mixed this up a little – working alongside white-collar workers in more of an assistive capacity. And now, cobots, the latest in robotics, offer something quite different.

While still physical robots, cobots operate alongside humans. They can operate either in the workplace or the household. And they’re a rapidly growing technology. By 2025, in fact, the market for industrial cobots is projected to reach $11.2 billion.

Cobots have brought (and are bringing) significant change to automation abilities, the composition of the workplace, and the way we interact with machines. So, what is a cobot, exactly?

The difference between robot and cobot

‘Cobots’ is short for collaborative robots. Unlike traditional robots in the workplace, (typically found in industrial automation), these robots safely work alongside their human counterparts.

This collaboration is what differentiates a cobot from other robots.

Cobots collaborate with humans in various ways, with different levels of technology to support bot-human teamwork. Many cobots can learn to perform a variety of tasks, and some can respond and react to a human colleague. All of them support human workloads.

Four types of collaboration

A cobot may fall under four collaboration categories:

  1. Coexistence: the cobot and the human work alongside each other, but not in a shared space.
  2. Sequential collaboration: the cobot and the human don’t work at the same time, but share the space they work in.
  3. Cooperation: the cobot and the human work together on the same part or task at the same time.
  4. Responsive collaboration: the cobot responds and reacts to the human worker in real-time, much like a human colleague on the same team or task might.

Cobots in pop culture

A good way to understand the cobot is to look at examples from pop culture.

A major example comes from the robots that you see Tony Stark/Iron Man work with, in his house, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These robots collaborate with him, taking his input and supporting him while he works in a space he shares with them.

In short, they are cobots.

Cobot history

Another way to look at answering the ‘what is a cobot’ question is to look at their history and where they come from.

Naturally, cobots are a more recent invention than robots. But they still have a longer history than you might think.

Cobots were first invented in 1996 when they were described in a patent filed by J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin. However, to ensure safety, and due to technological limitations, the first cobots were human-powered. This means that they had a human controlling them and telling them what to do next.

These days, the goal of cobots is to have them capable of working autonomously.

Why don’t I have a cobot in my home yet?

If a cobot is a robot that can work in the same space as a human, on a wide variety of tasks, why aren’t they entering our homes the same way they’re entering the workplace?

The dream of the robot assistant or butler in our homes is a long-lived one. But even with cobots on the rise, the challenge of bringing one safely into the home is still yet to be met. (Unless, of course, you’re Tony Stark from the MCU.)

For a robot of any kind to operate in the home, it needs to be able to navigate around pets and children, operate any number of dangerous tools and utensils, and be easy to control.

Just as robots are slowly making their way into homes across the world, cobots will likely start to do so as well — once they are safe, reliable, and affordable.

What is a cobot?

Cobot is the name for a new breed of robots that can collaborate with us safely. They can occupy the same space and work on the same tasks or workflows as us.

This will no doubt spark the recurring fear that robots are taking our jobs. However, the key thing to remember is that cobots are collaborative. That is — they need to work with us, not instead of us.

Useful links

The awkward interplay of man vs machine

AI and the Wizard of Oz

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in