Robots have been around in some form for decades, but recent advancements in artificial intelligence mean new generations of robot are coming. These will be smarter, more mobile, more collaborative and more adaptable than we’ve seen until now.
And depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty, automation may be seen as a blessing or a threat. For instance, Gartner believes that by 2018, more than three million workers globally will be supervised by a roboboss.
Robots on the march
In 2014, robot sales increased by 29% to 229,261 units, by far the highest level ever recorded for one year, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Globally, stock of operational industrial robots will increase to 2,327,000 units at the end of 2018, an average annual growth rate of 12% between 2015 and 2018. PwC believes that the next boom in the robotics industry will be driven by the service industry, replacing waiters and bar tenders.
What’s allowing robots to break out of factories is the rapid improvement in machine thinking. Artificial intelligence systems like IBM’s Watson show we can create machines that think for themselves – and the advances in this kind of research are accelerating.
IBM chief executive Virginia Rometty believes thinking machines will be a complement to our workforce, and they will learn like a child learns. "They reason and they learn. When I say reason it's like you and I, if there is an issue or question, they take in all the information that they know, they stack up a set of hypotheses, they run it against all that data to decide, what do I have the most confidence in,” said Rometty.
These advancements in autonomous machine intelligence in combination with improvements in cloud-based big data systems, mobility and cybernetics set the stage for connected machines to emerge as capable replacements for almost any human in almost any occupation, for example:
· Aerosense is developing surveying and inspection drones. These can be used at distance even in situations humans cannot risk.
· SoftBank’s Pepper is a humanoid robot that understands and expresses human emotions, making it appropriate for deployment in any customer-facing role – from the sales floor to support.
· Avidbots’ ARS-2 Robotic Floor Scrubber will clean huge swathes of commercial floor space, without complaint.
· Amazon’s delivery drones get your location information from your smartphone and update the drop-off location to the one that’s appropriate once shipment is ready.
In these four examples you can see humans replaced across customer sales and service, survey and observation, light haulage and courier delivery and menial roles. Not only this, but robots won’t ask for a raise or take the day off.
Machines can also go to places humans can’t visit. The DARPA Robotics Challenge exists to accelerate progress in robotics and hasten the day when robots have sufficient dexterity and robustness to enter areas too dangerous for humans and mitigate the impacts of natural or man-made disasters.
The bare facts are that teams are developing robotic solutions for almost every challenge we face, from robots designed to fix gas pipes under the floor to warehouse vehicles capable of wending their way safely through challenging environments. There’s even one robot that’s as at home working in manufacturing as it is in helping educate your children, and which is manually trainable by existing staff.
Autonomous vehicles are also becoming a reality. Driverless robot taxis are set to be trialled in Fujisawa from March next year and progress on connected vehicles has become mainstream. Interest in robotic cars has sparked a wider debate across the industry, inflamed by Tesla CEO, Elon Musk’s warning last year that AI is our “biggest existential threat.”
“I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish,” Musk warned. (Musk also has a stake in AI firm, Vicarous.)
That’s not to say things are perfect – as machines become smarter, who are we to tell them how to think?
"The fear is that we will lose control of AI systems," said Tom Dietterich, a professor and director of Intelligent Systems at Oregon State University.
"What if they have a bug and go around causing damage to the economy or people, and they have no off switch? We need to be able to maintain control over these systems. We need to build mathematical theories to ensure we can maintain control and stay on the safe side of the boundaries."
This may well be true, but once these technological challenges have been beaten, then it seems possible robots and automation will become the next big driver of productivity in the enterprise. “This opportunity with robots will be like combining the impact of electricity, communications, and the Internet,” predicted Eugene Izhikevich, CEO of Brain Corporation as reported by PWC.
However, as robots develop contextual understanding, cognition, dexterity and enhanced capacity to learn and interact from humans and each other, it seems inevitable they will forever transform the competitive dynamics of the enterprise.
Read more about how we are building tomorrow’s world today, and if you are trying to develop new technologies and solutions then do explore Orange Fab, our accelerator program for innovators.
Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.