It's not your imagination — investment and advancement in robotics is definitely heating up.
Some research firms, including Boston Consulting Group, have had to revise their estimates for robotics growth over the coming years. Earlier forecasts indicated spending on robots could reach $67 billion by 2025. That number now stands at $87 billion.
As the cost of technology falls, it becomes easier to bring robotics, automation and networking to a wider variety of workflows, companies and verticals. The creep of automation, and the potential for worker displacement, is a universal worry and opportunity across developed and developing nations alike.
According to the World Bank, perhaps one-third of current employees in developing nations may be displaced by automation, of which robotics is a major component. Likewise, 47 percent of American workers could face the same fate within 20 years.
The recent advancements in robotics technologies and their influence on national and global economies will be positive — in the long run. A
fter we explore some of the many industrial opportunities for robotics, we'll look at the role robotics needs to play in our education system and glance ahead at some of the coming policy conversations as we learn to live and work alongside robots and widespread automation.
Robotics in Medicine and Surgery
Fully automated surgery isn't quite here yet, but equipment like the da Vinci surgery system come extremely close — and without phasing out the intuition and decision-making capacities of a human surgeon.
Systems like these provide robotic arms for holding and maneuvering extremely delicate and precise instruments, while the surgeon manipulates the system remotely. The result is far higher accuracy and a lower likelihood of mistakes.
Robots in the Military
Search and rescue operations can be just as perilous for the team doing the searching as for the parties being rescued. In all branches of the armed forces, drones and robots can provide data collection out in the field — especially in areas that are prone to unpredictable weather patterns and even violence. Think about detecting improvised explosives and mines, or reporting on the movements of combatants in tense combat situations, and you begin to see the possibilities.
Robots in Material Handling, Supply Chain
The global supply chain refers to the vast network of facilities, personnel, vehicles and mechanical apparatus required to move products from their origin to their eventual users.
In manufacturing, the near future of robotics will probably see the adoption of cross-industry standards for robotics implementation. The benefits for manufacturing partners would include easier scalability and better compatibility with partner systems — as well as more consistent product quality across facilities.
As for actually moving all of those finished parts and products from the factory floor through multiple channels and eventually into the hands of a consumer, robotics and automation provide ways to, among other things:
- Use intelligent warehouse management systems to automatically direct human or robotic pickers and stowers to the correct warehouse locations for faster shipment or product storage.
- Phase out human order pickers entirely in favor of autonomous robots and stationary robotic arms for packing and shipping tasks.
Whether it involves moving foodstuffs, mechanical parts, medicines, household goods, or something else entirely, gathering and distributing products of all kinds is, increasingly, an ideal kind of work for robots.
The coming years will see digital and mechanical systems become even more closely tied together as pneumatic and similar technologies grant robotic arms greater flexibility and range of motion, connected digital technologies give these robotic assets the ability to coordinate their movements with one another and with other facility systems.
Robots in Hospitality
Hotel chains in some parts of the world are beginning to experiment with robotic concierges, receptionists and more. One of the flagship examples bears a name which translates to "Strange Hotel" in English — so the proprietors and patrons alike understand how "uncanny" the "uncanny valley" is here.
But the hospitality industry is rife with opportunities to introduce various forms of automation that aren't mannequin-like robots. Some more repetitive kitchen tasks may be automated in the near future, as some forward-thinking food service companies, with some help from MIT, have already proven.
Another concept that seems to have proven itself is Zume's roving pizza-cooking delivery oven. Yes, you read that correctly.
Robotics in Agriculture
Robots are an ideal match for agricultural operations for two reasons: they free human workers from long hours and potentially grueling conditions, and they can be programmed to automatically (and only) go to work when the conditions require it, thanks to onboard moisture and temperature sensors.
Small-scale "automated farmers" like the FarmBot Genesis indicates where things may be headed as we learn to plant, water and harvest crops in better tune with nature.
Why Make Robotics a Staple of Early Education?
There's a lot of writing on the wall here. And while pessimists will see much worth fretting over, the economic, personal, political, and global opportunities of disruption at the hands of robotics are likely to far outweigh the costs.
One of the implications is that, as robotics comes to permeate a greater share of our culture and our industry, our young people should be introduced to robotics and engineering concepts at younger ages and as a matter of course. We long ago identified reading comprehension and mathematics as essential educational areas for developing minds. But these aren't specific-enough any longer.
According to a symposium put together by a previous U.S. White House, educators, entrepreneurs and researchers stand in agreement that STEM-related skills should become a part of our kids' school curriculums at an earlier age. Throughout the years, groups of advocates in the U.S., as well as Australia and beyond, have attempted to make robotics a more robust — and possibly even compulsory — part of a child's standard education.
Studies of robotics in kindergarten and even pre-kindergarten classrooms indicate young minds pick up on these concepts very quickly. And given what we've seen about the wide-ranging applicability of these skills, that's a good sign.
How Will Robots Transform the Economy?
Robots will displace some jobs and create many more. The jobs they do create will probably only become more specialized over time, which is part of the reason for bringing STEM and robotics into the classroom at an earlier age.
Some look ahead see a future where the economy has become automated to the point where a universal basic income, or UBI, becomes a moral imperative. In a country where up to 47 percent of all jobs may be automated in mere decades, nothing else, say some economists, will ensure a minimum standard of living for citizens while they train, educate or otherwise pursue more rewarding careers. It's probably wise that we begin having an honest conversation about UBI sooner rather than later.
Robotics is going to vastly improve the average standard of living on planet earth, if we figure out how to weather the transition.
The more mindful we become about the place robots are coming to inhabit in our society, the sooner we can teach the next generations to live in harmony with technology and come up with sensible ways to evolve in tandem with it.