Over the last six months, robots have been everywhere.
Well, not literal robots, but the news, the web, the economic journals all have been talking about robots:
- CBS News: Google buys eight robotics companies;
- CNN: Amazon promising us 30 minute delivery via robotic drone; or
- Forbes: Phew, The Robots Are Only Going To Take 45 Percent Of All The Jobs
- Bloomberg: Your job taught to machines…
Robots have caught our attention. But why, and why now?
I think we find ourselves at the corner (forgive the alliteration) of Cost, Capability, and Culture and all three of these combine to make robotics the enabler for the foreseeable future. In academic terms, they are both necessary and sufficient.
Cost is a big factor. When industrial automation was first available the cost of an arm ran as high as the equivalent of 10 years salary for an unskilled laborer. This made the payback/ROI a hard sell. Only when the cost dropped into the 2-3 year equivalent did industrial automation take off. To be fair for some specialized applications, the precision and safety were drivers, but for mainstream applications the cost was the driver.
Today, we are seeing robots being adopted outside the factory floor, and they don’t cost $250K, or even $100K – service robots are in the $20K to $75K range, due to the availability of low cost components and, interestingly, the cost savings from robotic manufacturing. So the ROI drops to 1 to 2 years for many jobs that can be automated.
That brings us to the second ‘C” Capability. Over the last 10 years there have be major strides forward in the ability of the software to control an autonomous robot alongside people. As you probably know, in industrial automation the robots are kept behind cages and wire walls – because it is not safe for people to be around them. It was in 1979 that the first human worker was killed by an industrial robot. Since then OSHA and other regulatory agencies have tightened the restriction on allowing people near industrial robots.
Today, the software and control theories have made it possible to safely interact with these robots, and the robots have enough brain power to reason about the world and complete complex tasks, such as security, bar-tending, and so on. Without the capability to do these tasks well, we, as a culture, will simply not accept them. As I have said in an earlier post “Robots must earn their pay”
So here is the final ‘C’: Culture. Over the last 20 years or so we have seen a growing acceptance of robots in the culture. More and more movies (what better indicator of cultural memes?) feature friendly robots (Wall-E, Johnny-5, R2D2, the good Transformers) instead of evil robots bent on world domination. People are starting to look at robots as helpers, assistants, and useful tools. At Gamma 2 Robotics we ask people Where is your robot?® and they are not frightened, they are excited by the prospects.
Tomorrow’s Robots Today
So all three C’s are coming together: The robots now have the capabilities to do the tasks we want them to do; the robots are becoming available at a cost point that makes it economically feasible to put them to work; and as a culture we are now looking for them to do the jobs.
We are on the cusp of major changes in how we work and how we work with robots. Google, Amazon, and Apple are all leading the way, but it is the small companies that are producing the robots that are going to change our world. Will there be hiccups along the way, yes there will. But the world of tomorrow is going to be built by robots doing the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs.
Where is your robot?® Ours are hard at work making the world a better place.
For more information check out Gamma 2 Robotics or call +1-303-778-7400