The Age of the Robots


Robots have a mystical place in our imagination. Even in literature as old as time have people talked about magical humanlike machines that perform some tasks. In modern times the image of the robot has been shaped by fiction ranging form H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds to Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey. First practical use of machines came with the industrial revolution. It was energy that made them possible and they transformed western societies. First the energy was steam and later electricity. Now we are entering into a new revolution where the next generation of machines or robots are coming to market. In the next few years we will see a revolution in robot technology. The age of the robot is here.

Robots of the 20th century are far from the imagination of a humanlike intelligent machine. In fact, a more accurate term for a robot in the workpalce would be “industrial machine”, where machine is used to preform task to automate the work process. And they are far from humanlike. Anything outside of this automated process, the machine can’t handle, since it is programmed to perform only one task or series of tasks very well. And since they are expensive, they are only cost effective at large scales.

We are now seeing shift in robot technology. This shift is driven by a few factors. Advances in software engineering is allowing more sophisticated software to be developed. Furthermore, advances in hardware and storage allow even small robots to have real operating systems and layers of advanced software running. Capacity is not a problem anymore, neither is size.

New input and output technologies or human computer interaction (HCI) are revolutionising robotics. Robots can now see and hear. Robots, or machines of the 20th century were blind and deaf. Now voice commands are becoming more normal as people are talking to their devices. Processing of language is getting to the point that these commands are processed with high accuracy. Seeing with video cameras allows robots to adjust to variation, like picking up objects in variable locations, and detect abnormalities. Vison allows for automatic jobs that previously required human vision, for example in food processing and harvesting.

Then there are advances in artificial intelligence. Robots can learn. Robots that can be specifically trained to perform specific tasks by demonstation. With software improvements  robots can also pickup behaviour and automatically adjust to patterns.

Anything that is operated by software can be updated easily. Robots can become software platforms, where developers add new skill sets to existing robots and sell these as apps in the robot app store. For example, if you want to add new language skill to your robot, just install a language app. If you want to add medical skills just add the doctor app. This allows robot makers to create a new generation of robots – personal robots, similar to personal computers.

We are already seeing something like a personal robot. One example is Baxter from US company Rethink Robotics:

Robots like Baxter, which can be trained to do specific tasks, is simple to operate and does not have to be segregated from people, will transform manufacturing. Labor costs will drop as fewer people are needed. According to Kevin Kelly in his Wired article, Better than human, he predicts that 70% of occupations today will be eliminated due to machines by the end of this century. Jobs today that humans do but can be replaced by machine, will eventually be replaced.

First and most obvious would be manufacturing jobs where the same actions are repeated on an assembly line. As an example, Foxconn, the company that puts together Apple products like the iPhone and got into news due to poor worker conditions, plans to replace it’s workforce with robots.

Foxconn’s move is out of necessity. Affordable robots will change manufacturing from massive scale to a more local scale. Jobs that were outsourced to countries with cheap labor, such as in Asia, will return to local countries since the transport cost starts to become an issue.  This can have profound impact on the world economy. We will see manufacturing return back to the US and Europe. Even Apple is starting to assemble computers in the US. That might be a good thing, but it remains to be seen if the jobs follow.

Technical unemployment due to machines will be a challenge. With better software and new input technologies robots will impact sectors like military, healthcare, education, cleaning services, domestic help, agriculture, fishing and much more. General purpose robots are just in the early phase. Cost will drop and they will become more and more sophisticated. Jobs that we thought machines could never do, will be automated or profoundly changed. Be prepared to move over, a robot is taking your job.