Robots are rising. No, a dystopian future has not arrived (where terminator-type metallic despots begin ruling the world). Rather, a newly emboldened industry is racing to create a true helper class of intelligent technology, designed to make our lives easier and better. The opportunities available are varied and vast.
In this second highlight of our series of Ten Emerging Markets as Big as the Internet, we’re looking at (a) robots, as creature-like helpers; and (b) robotics, as the industry of hardware and software running everything from auto manufacturing to prosthetic (bionic) limbs and assistive devices.
There is great excitement these days over robots, from autonomous lawnmowers to drones that follow you and document your adventures. There are myriad important advances in all areas of robotics, including better, more cost-effective machinery for manufacturing and new components making possible superhero-like exosuits designed to—among other uses—help stroke victims walk again.
Intelligence and Automation
There’s plenty of overlap in robotics and artificial intelligence, but the latter is so enormous in its own right that we’ll focus our next post in this series entirely on the subject of the state of AI, concerns, and opportunities. For the purpose of this article, it’s important to affirm that a big part of the enthusiasm around robotics is precisely because AI has come so far.
If you were a kid in the 1980s, you likely saw ads for household robots. I personally saw the Omnibot in a popular consumer electronics magazine and can still remember imagining life with my very own droid.
But as PC Magazine wrote, there were good reasons robots for your home did not become a sustainable phenomenon at that time (even though every kid begged their parents for one). Technology was too limited. They promised the ability to pour a drink or lift 1-pound objects, but not much more. And cost to purchase was prohibitive for what they really were—toys.
The main limitations in the 70s and 80s were numerous and gargantuan. Practically speaking, even high-end workstation CPUs were little more than overweight number counters. The first 4-bit 4004 microprocessor by Intel was used to that end.
Voice processing was limited. Actual multitasking was still a pipe dream. Computers weren’t portable—the earliest “laptops” were beasts weighing 25 pounds or more. Robot vision was mostly feigned with eyes that lit up but didn’t “see.” Battery technology was abysmal. Disk and storage devices were pitifully slow and capacities infinitesimally small. And so on.
Today, there is no debating that several factors have combined to make robots of every kind plausible.
Maturity and Opportunity
Groundbreaking engineering feats in countless STEM disciplines have changed the landscape. The following list is a small subset of the advances that have completely changed the picture and lands us where we are today.
- Real-time processing today is so fast that devices that cost less than $1,000 enable interactions and activities for users that were only previously imagined in science fiction. The emergence of multi-core processing, uniting fast processor clock rate with “more complex design but a higher instructions-per-cycle rate” continues to make even the most process-heavy applications possible.
- More robust wireless connectivity means that remote devices can offload processing (and storage) to the cloud, taking advantage of near infinite parallel computing and analytic capacities. If there were still limitations for onboard computing, connected computing has caused this challenge to nearly evaporate.
- Rechargeable batteries are now portable power plants, capable of supplying the needs for even large motor vehicles. GM, Nissan, Tesla, and virtually every carmaker has now validated this reality. If a new $44,000 Tesla Model 3 can do 310 miles on a single charge (at an estimated 3,800 lbs), the new generation of robots will have to nap less than you, to do significantly more than you do.
- Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence mean that robots are able to “learn” from their mistakes—even collectively—so that autonomous projects can improve outcomes. In the last decade we have seen the introduction of vastly intelligent search, voice assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, natural language processing and translation, and countless other advances. All of these have combined to offer promise for even more substantive innovation.
- Machine vision via cameras, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), and other technologies has meant that robots are no longer blind to environments. Facial recognition and other systems will allow them to even recognize and distinguish between individuals.
Many are anticipating that Jetsons-like personal robot helpers are not far off. Whatever area of the robot revolution intrigues you most, in order to take advantage of market expansion, it’s important to have less abstract conceptions of what it’s all about, and more firm figures as to growth and significance.
FT reports that with compound growth already at 17 percent annually, “the robot market will be worth $135bn by 2019.”
Remember also that robots and robotics are part of a giant horizontal market, meaning that, like other markets in our list, there are several vertical markets where disruption is occurring in tandem. Some of these include:
- Retail and public venues. Seoul is already preparing to deploy robots in advance of its winter olympics to assist tourists as they arrive for the games. Robots that guide and assist visitors in various ways are being created by numerous companies.
- Voice services. Assistants like those by Apple and Amazon, as well as call center assistants with vastly improved skills, are all improving at rapid rates and will continue to displace roles currently filled by humans.
- Law Enforcement and Security. Robots standing in for humans in dangerous and after-hours occupations has long been in the sights of risk and insurance firms globally. Despite some comical scenarios now emerging, like the recent drowning of robo-guard “Steve,” the opportunities in the industry remain significant.
- Home automation. While the personal robot remains an obvious and sustained dream for much of humanity, more automated features throughout the home are possible. Much creativity will lead to leaps forward, first in luxury conveniences and subsequently in “must haves” for the rest of the population. Our upcoming article on the Internet of Things (IoT) will add detail to this trend.
- Laborforce replacement. With debates over minimum wage increases and constant pursuits of higher quality services, countless companies are looking at robotic complements or even replacements for low-paid jobs. Even flipping burgers will soon be a robot-only occupation. With Elon Musk’s pronouncement that robots will be capable of “everything, bar nothing” that we do, it’s at least conceivable that in the near future numerous roles will be threatened.
- Manufacturing. For decades, assembly lines have utilized robotic arms and processes in the production of automotive vehicles and parts. Companies such as Dell revolutionized the way that assembly plants not only built sophisticated products but even custom configured machines on a massive scale (mass customization). Robotic advancements will only continue as the technology lunges forward.
- Robotic (bionic) limbs and human-machine interfaces. New progress in prosthetics and even nerve control of robotic extensions is advancing in promising ways. This yields hope for altruistic reasons as well as business opportunities.
It’s an exciting time to be an innovator. The greater robotics market is showing significant opportunities for investment and growth. Even the threats posed to other markets is an education in what to prepare for, to ensure you’re well positioned to take advantage and mitigate against surprises.
There are certainly very real concerns about the emergence of robots, as Musk and others have noted. There is also much hope for what they will allow us to do. Conceivably, robots as assistants is a hopeful enterprise. Theoretically however, robots which learn and are greatly enhanced through artificial intelligence pose concerns as well. We’ll look at this in more detail in our article on AI.
Enough people believe that robots are finally headed for viability in several sectors that VC investments are increasing at an enormous pace. With so much effort underway there is little doubt that marvels of science and discovery are still ahead.
This article is Part 2 of a series called Ten Emerging Markets as Big as the Internet. Part 1 looked at Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR & AR). Our next market highlight will take a look at robots and robotics. Stay tuned.