Welcome to the age of ultra efficient robotics, where robots are transmit and receive information without the assistance of human workers. Robots has been around for a long time in various forms, stages and capacities and as we transition into the Fourth Industrial Revolution they are finally starting to resemble Pepper. But robotics is more diverse and complex than Pepper and even the most common conceptions we have formed of robots in popular culture. Robots are already handling significant parts of out lives (whether you are aware of it or not) and they are helping us live better by helping us at home (think Roomba), in factories/Industry 4.0, private drones, military drones and many other things that are fit the robotics category. What is important in my opinion is to understand how we will increasingly interact with robotics in our daily lives along with the second and third order impacts these interactions will produce.
But first, what makes a robot a robot? Some machines are robots and others are not. For example a Roomba is a robot but a vacuum isn't a robot. A self driving car is a robot but a tractor is not. Microsoft word is just software but other programs are digital robots. You would be surprised to find out that there is not one universally accepted definition of what makes a robot a robot however, I have scaled down the various definitions into what I believe is the most credible and sensible one.
Robots can be physical or digital and can be classified as:
- Programmable Machines which and autonomously handle work, tasks or other issues when presented a set a physical or digital data.
- Sense - Process - Act - Repeat Paradigms which provides the ability of machines to become "intelligent" or "aware" of their surroundings relative to their tasks. In this case a machine that interacts with the physical world around it would need the ability to "see" what it is around it so that the information can be processed and then acted upon with an immediate reassessment of the situation. If the machine is digital in nature, the need for seeing would be removed but there would be an increased demand for computational capacity regarding handling data in a particular way.
- The Outputs/Actions Must Be Predictable - A machine has to produce standard outputs or take standard actions that are aligned with the desired end results of the designers, operators or owners.
Additionally, we have to separate the robots of the previous industrial revolutions (let's call them narrow/dumb robots) and the robots of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (let's call them general/smart):
- Narrow Robotics - these are the classic robots which have all the features of the robots listed above and worked in very narrow situations. Think about the robotics in factories, Roomba's, and the large assembly arms in car factories. These systems required a lot of programming and could not be be programmed to do other things by the end users. There are simple robotics that can perform excellently in narrow situations but cannot do more than the one task they were programmed to do. Nothing else.
- General Robotics - general robotics are able to handle a diverse activities, can be customized to the end users needs with relative easiness and are generally digitally connected to a centralized network and/or the internet to optimize their work. These robots can handle complex tasks on the factory floor, in the office or interacting with customers answering questions. These are the beginning of the robotics revolution of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Now that we have a general working definition for what robotics are we can identify the items that can be roboticized. For example, a tractor that is currently not a robot can be transformed into one if we added standardized sensing, processing and action commands for it to operate autonomously. The same goes for a broad range of machines, programs and digital applications that can be automated and as a result can be converted into a robot.
Robotics is a key player in the automation of jobs and tasks in in the blue and white collar sector in developed and developing economies and as a result will have economic impacts around the world. Companies, governments and workers alike should start considering there impacts on their local and national economies and the rate of innovation increase in the physical and digital robotics sector picks up. China and to a lesser degree Mexico will face significant structural employment issues as the cost of producing in the destination country falls dramatically. The current Baxter Robot which can operate in the commercial environment cost around $30,000 total + energy with a overall operating cost of under $4 an hour which is fairly close the the cost of a Chinese worker when other shipping and logistics costs are factored in.
Likewise in the developed economies like the United States, Canada, Japan and Western Europe, it is the white collar and highly skilled workers which need to be concerned about their future employment security. Traders, accountants, general practitioner doctors, a long with all the support staffs will also be automated to one degree or another ranging from 15% to almost 100%. If you'd like to learn more about how robotics and automation work in regards to employment, economies and overall forecasts you can do so by clicking here or just select Automation from the Tech menu.
Jobless Economic Recovery
Robots are main driver for the jobless economic recovery in the United States and in other developed economies around the world. Companies are deploying robotic assistants to work with their human employees to accomplish task more efficiently and at a lower cost. Warehouses, call centers and help desks are some of the primary targets of robotics immediately but they are from the last.
The reason the deployment of robotics result in the creation of jobless economic growth is because the robots are replacing partially or completely the job of one or more workers. While the productivity and economic output of the company is that same, the labor expenditure does not grow correspondingly. This helps companies be more profitable with the gains going to owners and shareholders instead of increased payrolls/employment.
Robotics in Space
NASA has already started deploying robots on the space station and for future missions to mars and the moon. Far from something we would read about in science fiction novel, robots are already assisting astronauts on their space walks by giving them an extra set of hands and in some cases doing space walks that would be too dangerous for a human astronaut to do.
SpaceX and NASA will send a variety of robots to mars to establish many of the basic requirements for human settlements to begin. From exploring and siting the first settlement locations to erecting the first settler buildings. Robots that have the ability to assist us in exploring other plants and developing settlements will increase the likelihood that significant populations will be living someone where other than earth.