The Coming Robot Revolution: Friendly or Not?

The Coming Robot Revolution: Friendly or Not?

Representations of robots range from Baymax, the huggable health assistant in Big Hero 6, to the Terminator, the (as one might guess) violent assassin in the Terminator series. As spending on robotics — both consumer and industrial — rises, which of these extremes is more likely to happen?

A report by International Data Corporation said worldwide spending on robotics and related services should hit $135.4 billion by 2019. That same report said that global robotics spending in 2015 was $71 billion.

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Robotics as a technology has really reached its tipping point,” says IDC Manufacturing Insights research manager John Santagate

The combination of technological capabilities expanding, increased investment in robot development (and the competition that it’s creating), and decreasing costs associated with robotics is spurring an industry boom. It’s just in time, too — with the global population set to increase by one billion by 2025 and reach 9.6 billion by 2050, we need all the help we can get to create a new infrastructure to keep up with that population.

Robotics in Manufacturing and the Supply Chain

Manufacturing is already one of the areas where robots are commonly used, with Dr. Jing Bing Zhang of IDC counting manufacturing as a big part of the reason that robotics was a $71 billion industry in 2015. According to him, it’s ”[among] the core technologies that is enabling significant change in manufacturing.”

And as the technology improves, the number of robots in the supply chain and manufacturing processes are set to grow.

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The switch to using more robots in manufacturing isn’t some far-off spot on the horizon. It’s already in the works, with Shiseido announcing that it wants to use robots in its new domestic plant with the goal of creating a 50% increase in output — with a decline in production costs.

As robots become more autonomous and dextrous, able to handle smaller and more delicate objects, they’ll start to become more common in manufacturing and in the supply chain. In that same IDC report, the authors noted that the two fastest growing industries for robotics are healthcare and process manufacturing (a branch of manufacturing that involves developing and assembling products based on recipes or formulas, like sodas or drugs).

Robotics in the Home

Speaking of healthcare, expect to see more personal assistant robots soon — especially for the elderly or people with disabilities. French company Aldebaran has been spearheading their Romeo project since 2009, with the goal of creating an assistant for elderly individuals or people losing their autonomy via illness or disability.

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The prototype is downright adorable, clocking in at under 5’ tall and weighing about 80 pounds. Romeo is designed to be non-threatening and friendly looking, but still able to open doors, climb stairs, and reach objects on a table.

Other potential services for personal assistant robots include education and supervising children, which is another place where robotic infrastructure intersects with the booming global populace. Although one can imagine that parents might be leery to hand their children over to a robot babysitter, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine robot assistants helping out in crowded daycares, reminding potentially-overworked staffers of the schedule.

And, of course, there’s always housecleaning — iRobot’s Roomba, a floor cleaning robot, is the best Rosie replacement that we have right now, but in five or ten years, who knows? Of course, whether that would be an economically viable option for most of the populace is still up in the air. Even now, 14 years after the original Roomba, models range from $374.99 to $899.99, which is out of reach for many families.

Research from Tracita predicts that non-industrial robotics, specifically personal assistance robots, is going to grow much faster as an industry than their manufacturing/industrial counterparts.

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Looking at that chart, you might wonder: What exactly is going to happen to the human personal assistants — or manufacturing workers, for that matter?

Will Robots Steal Your Job?

The answer, unsatisfying as it is, is “maybe.”

On the “robots are coming to steal your job” side of the argument, we have software developers like Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, saying:

I really think we’re in the midst of a transition where in the past, machines have always been tools that have been used by people and made those people more productive, but increasingly, the technology is really becoming a replacement or a substitute for more and more workers. That’s going to be a huge issue over the coming decade.

Ford’s argument is that machines have already impacted our economy and are one reason wages have remained stagnant over the last decade or so. He argues that this development isn’t an incremental shift, but will be a historic disruption, along the lines of the Wright brothers inventing the aircraft.

And he’s not the only one — a report from Oxford Martin School and Citi Research estimated that the number of jobs that will be replaced by automation hovers around 57% worldwide, with the number being as high as 85% in some countries:

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But not everyone thinks the future is so doom and gloom. Closer to the middle of the road, we have David Autor, an economics professor at MIT. Speaking to the BBC, he noted that automation (along the lines of factory assembly, or even in-home washing machines) has led to more positive changes than negative ones:

Generally, our time is made more valuable by the machinery we employ. We can accomplish more.

His suggestion? Our educational systems should shift to focusing on the kind of work that robots aren’t necessarily good at — relying on creativity and emotional intelligence, along with managing the robots.

Remember when Google came on the scene, and people worried it would replace librarians? That didn’t happen — instead, openings for librarians actually increased, just with new skill requirements for the job.

If it’s possible for a machine to completely replace a human, then yes, I’m superfluous. But if I’m the person who can now manage that machine, then I become more valuable.” - David Autor

Another factor is whether people will want to interact with robots in lieu of humans. Manufacturing is one thing, but service industry positions are another — will people actually want a robot cashier or waitress or childcare provider, or will they find them unnerving and prefer their human counterparts?

It’s also worth noting that while some jobs will be replaced by robots, the industry is also creating side markets, with the IDC report’s authors saying “that the total spend on robot services, business consulting, education, and training will eventually eclipse sales of the robots themselves by 2019.”

And of course, as with our visions of the future in general, all of this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Some experts are more cautious about their predictions.

Ken Goldberg, an engineer at UC Berkeley, thinks many need to rein in their predictions, lest we set unrealistic expectations, leaving a gap between our hopes and the reality, which in turn can lead to steep cuts in funding. His opinion? Warnings about AI and robots surpassing human intelligence, or stealing all our jobs, are “greatly exaggerated.”

Google recently announced that it is selling Boston Dynamics, its robotics unit, because the company doesn’t think it will produce a marketable product in the next few years. This could be supporting evidence for Goldberg’s point, or it could be an example of shortsightedness — only time will tell. Amazon is rumored to be making the purchase, and given their documented interest in automating as much of their logistics as possible, that’s not surprising.

Whether a jobless future is in the cards or not is anyone’s guess. But for my part, I’d be happy with an affordable house cleaning robot.


About the Author

Michelle Nickolaisen is a freelance writer and business owner based in Austin, TX.