“In the twenty first century, the robot will take the place which slave labour occupied in ancient civilisations.”
The Robots are coming
The past few decades have seen many significant advances in robotics. As a result, we now live in a world in which an increasing variety of tasks utilise robots. Oxford Economics estimated that robots could displace about 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030 (that’s 8.5% of the current global workforce).
Indeed, the number of robots in the world has doubled over the past decade. And, whilst they are not expected to revolt against the humans any time soon, they are nevertheless changing the world in which we live.
But what are Robots?
What counts as a robot? Before we get carried away talking about machine uprisings, let’s start by considering what a robot actually is.
As it turns out, it can be quite difficult to come up with a definition that everyone agrees on. Most people would agree that a robot is a machine. But a robot must be more than just a machine to make it a robot. Kate Darling, a roboticist at the MIT Media Lab, defines a robot as:
‘a physical machine that’s usually programmable by a computer that can execute tasks autonomously or automatically by itself’
On this definition a radio-controlled drone is not a robot. This is because it can only act based on instructions it receives from its controller. However, it can become a robot if it becomes capable of performing actions independently of its human controller based on some pre-programmed automated logic. For instance, if it is programmed to detect and avoid obstacles during flight without needing to be instructed to do so.
This fine dividing line between machines that are remotely controlled and machines that have the capability for autonomous action can make it difficult to spot robots. Just how autonomous does a machine’s actions need to be to count as a robot?
Simple machines that are not robots can perform tasks such as switching on and off, without human input, but we don’t necessary consider these to be robots. It needs to be automated; it needs to respond to input from its environment and it needs to act independently of direct human control. However, it also needs to be reasonably sophisticated in its ability to respond – otherwise a thermostatically controlled switch might potentially be called a robot!
How many Robots are there today?
Most robots are, at present, used in manufacturing and, in particular, for automated assembly processes. The (International Federation of Robotics) IFR estimated that there were around 2.7 million industrial robots in use around the world in 2019.
Robots are big business. 2019 saw 373,000 new industrial robots installed at a cost of US$13.8b.
However, 73% of these robots exist in just five countries – the USA, Japan, Germany, China and South Korea.
So what are Robots being used for?
Most robots are used in manufacturing and logistics operations. Typically, that would be for assembly operations or for moving goods/parts around the factory floor or in a warehouse.
28% of all the robots installed in 2019 were in an automotive business. The image many of us have of robots assembling cars is still a fair representation of the reality of robotics in the workplace today. And a further 24% are in use in the electrical/electronic manufacturing industries. That’s just these two industry sectors purchasing over half of the world’s robots.
However, robots are now also being used in a wider variety of other manufacturing sectors such as metal machinery, plastics and food. We can expect to see them used more extensively across manufacturing over the coming decade as technology develops viable applications outside of the automotive space.
Also, whilst most robots are still being installed in factories, we are now starting to see new types of robots emerging in other industry sectors as well.
When drones become Robots
Most drones are not robots. That is because their radio operators directly control them. And in that respect, they are no different from radio controlled model aircraft.
However, some of the more advanced drones incorporate a degree of AI in the form of Computer Vision which enables them to detect and respond to obstacles whilst flying without the need for operator intervention. This kind of technology also allows them to record observations about their environment in a more automated way.
The more autonomous a drone becomes, the more robot-like it becomes. In future robot drones will become a reality.
Robots in logistics
Robotic (driverless) forklift trucks have been around for a while but up until now not in huge numbers. In 2019, firms bought around 5,000 of these robot trucks – that sounds a lot but it’s still only 0.3% of the global forklift truck market and only about 1% of the size of the global market for industrial robots.
Nevertheless, logistics is becoming more automated, and the competitive demands generated by businesses like Amazon will no doubt act as an accelerator of change.
How fast robots will catch on in logistics remains an open question, but many industry commentators expect to see significant growth in their use over the coming decade.
Robots in healthcare
Robots are now also starting to make an appearance in our hospitals and health clinics.
Here, there are number of different applications. Covid has seen a particular growth in interest in UV disinfection robots. These may have had most prominence in the news over the past year, but they are by no means the only application.
Toyota have developed a robot (WelWalk WW-200) to help with the rehabilitation of patients suffering from lower limb paralysis. And some companies have even developed robot surgeons to assist in simpler or more routine surgical procedures.
It is clearly very early days with a lot of this technology, but many people feel healthcare robotics is an area to watch for some potentially significant growth opportunities in the future.
Driverless vehicles are, of course, a form of robot. Trials are currently underway with driverless cars and we could well see these vehicles start to make an appearance on our roads before 2021 is out.
These robot drivers can negotiate their way from A to B – responding to traffic conditions and making autonomous decisions about when to speed up and slow down, when to avoid obstacles, and when to stop for traffic lights etc.
Just about any form of vehicle could be driverless. Indeed, we may even see the day where passenger aircraft essentially become robot-controlled drones.
Robots in agriculture
One sector that is likely to see an increased use of robots is agriculture. Here we are likely to see more driverless tractors and combines in use in the future.
There are also robots today that can pick fruit, capable of gauging the ripeness of fruit and deciding for themselves which fruit to pick and which not.
Robot house servants
Simple robots are in use today for such basic tasks as vacuuming and CES 2021 showcased several concept domestic robots designed to help with a variety of common household tasks such as washing the dishes and tidying up.
The day when we are all served by Robot Jeeves is still a long way away, however, although the next decade is likely to see some increasingly sophisticated automation technology move us a lot closer to it.
To get to a stage where we come face to face with a fully functioning, intelligent, humanoid, robot is (let’s face it) a long way off.
The key developments that are yet to come, which would make that possible, relate more to AI than to creating an electro-mechanical machine capable of replicating human motion.
How close are we to creating such an robot?
Various experts have different views on this. Some have suggested some time between 2030 and 2060 is theoretically realistic – so potentially within our lifetimes!
That said, we have an issue in creating that kind of AI. And that is the age-old AI problem – to design Artificial Intelligence, you really need to be able to define what “human intelligence” actually is. Philosophers have debated this question for centuries without really arriving at a clear answer!
One thing is for sure though, robotic technology is going to offer some significant growth opportunities across a range of different sectors and applications over the coming decade. It is just a question of identifying and exploiting the new opportunities that this technology will bring.
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