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Steve Koenig: The Robot Market — Taking Jobs or Helping Society?

Robots are playing a greater role in the workplace. But rather than being replaced, workers will be freed to do more innovative work.


For decades, robots and robot-like machines have fascinated and inspired us. Parallel to the advancement of technology and engineering, robots have steadily migrated from the pages of science fiction novels to take their place in our culture and economies — from factory floors to living rooms. In most cases, the implementation of robots and robotic technology centers on performing tasks. From welding to vacuuming, robots are performing jobs that are dirty, dangerous, arduous or just plain dull.

But as the pace of innovation continues to quicken, robots — in tandem with artificial intelligence (AI) — are evolving to perform roles and services. Does this mean robots will soon begin to displace humans in the workforce?

In August 2014, the Pew Research Center released a study examining AI, robotics and the future of jobs. The report is a synthesis of nearly 1,900 expert opinions on these topics and concludes with mixed results. Most experts interviewed in the study agree robots and AI “will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025.” Some of the industries most affected will include: healthcare, transport and logistics, customer service and home maintenance. However, expert opinion is divided when it comes to how advances in robots and AI “will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.” Is this cause for concern or just overblown consternation?

There are myriad scenarios today where robot “workers” are preferred to humans for very sensible and pragmatic reasons: safety, speed, precision, time, etc. The manufacturing industry provides some of the richest examples of robotic technology employed to safely automate assembly lines; lending speed and precision to often complex processes. On the public safety and security front, robots are used for security patrols and/or to defuse and dispose of bombs. This brings up an important point to consider: these machines are not taking jobs; they are often aiding humans in one way or another, enhancing human abilities. Rarely are they operated without some degree of human control.

Before we leap into a future where RoboCop is on patrol and Rosie (a la “The Jetsons”) is cleaning the house, let’s look at what’s happening now in robotics and artificial intelligence — the chocolate and peanut butter of some of the coolest technology to date.

On the home-front, robotic innovation focusing on time-intensive, domestic tasks is compelling. At the 2015 International CES® we saw Grillbot, a small, fully automated robot cleaner for your grill: simply place Grillbot on a flat grill surface under 250 degrees, press a button and it dutifully scrubs the grates clean through a computer chip controlling the movement, speed, and direction of the brushes. How about watering the lawn or garden? A smart sprinkler system, Droplet, combines the latest technology in robotics, cloud computing and connected services to intelligently determine how best to care for your green spaces. The company purports the average Droplet saves $263 annually in water costs. And if your human maid does not clean windows, pick-up a Winbot by Ecovacs Robotics — it will get the job done on framed or frameless glass.

Family companions comprise a new arena of robotic innovation in the home designed primarily around social interaction, personal assistance and security. One of the best examples of this emerging trend is Jibo, a robot helper built by a Boston company with the same name. Buddy, a crowd-funded creation of Blue Frog Robotics based in Paris, France is another robot companion expected to ship soon. Expect more “robo-pals” to enter the market in the near future. A recent BI Intelligence report claims the consumer robot market is the fastest growing sector in robotics with a CAGR of 17 percent expected through 2019 — seven times faster than the market for manufacturing robots. And you guessed it; there is a new breed of “intimate” robots being developed for those who are really lonely.

Any discussion surrounding robotics and AI will eventually lead to drones and self-driving cars. These technologies are perhaps the most controversial given their autonomous nature and clearly engineering outpaces policy — for now. Earlier this year the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued proposed rules governing drone use in the U.S., paving a path forward for final rules in 2016 allowing widespread domestic commercial and civilian use of unmanned aerial systems. Companies are already waiting in the wings, such as SenseFly’s eBee Ag, an aerial drone designed for agriculture that can scout fields and analyze the health of crops.

In the office, robots are already helping augment human resources through telepresence. Double is a telepresence robot we saw at the 2015 CES that allows people to have a physical presence at work or school when they cannot be there in-person. It even comes with a driving app allowing a remote human to control a Double from anywhere in the world.

So whether we’re working the fields or presenting in the boardroom, we can expect most of these machines to assist/complement human workers rather than supplant them. The history of automation provides a lesson for the future concerning robots: where machines have taken the place of people, it has been for sensible and credible reasons; freeing people to find new purposes. Witness the spirit of innovation at work: improving our economies and moving us forward as a society.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)

Original article posted on 1776 Insights.


Steve Koenig is Senior Director of Market Research for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).





All views expressed are those of the author.

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