The Robot Renaissance is Upon Us

By Wladimir Hinz, Altitude Accelerator Tech Blogger.

“Computers are starting to sprout legs and move around in the environment” – Andy Rubin

Robot Renaissance

A copious amount of automated machines are entering the manufacturing and industrial sector. More and more robots are springing up as companies see themselves in need of designing innovative machines to cut costs and stay on top of technological advances.

One of the major concerns, of course, is that robots may hijack human jobs. Up to a certain point, this is true, right now, robots will most likely take over the more mundane – and boring – parts of a job.

But what will happen after that? Are these machines potentially dangerous to humans? It’s easy to think that these code-running complex machines pose a threat to people, and Elon Musk’s words of warning are always in the back of everybody’s mind:

“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.”

Humanity must be careful, nobody wants to be subjugated by humanoid machine overlords.

Grim thoughts aside, the transition to robots is happening. This is probably why we are seeing more ‘human friendly’ robot-types attracting the most dollars from VC’s – $341.3 million in 2014.

Humanity actually needs robots and a perfect illustration to why, is what John Markoff said in a recent interview:

“What’s largely left out of this discussion about robots, manufacturing automation, and white-collar automation is that all over the advanced world we’re seeing a dramatically aging population. What’s called the dependency ratio is moving in a direction where robots may show up just in time because there may not be enough workers. It’s a very different way of looking at the problem.”

In this sense, there’s a dire necessity for robots. Startups have noticed that robots need to play a bigger role in the structure of the workforce and are just starting to deliver.

This year has seen serious amounts of money flowing into robotics startups. An exhaustive list of all the deals that have taken place in 2015, whether it’s VC investments, joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, and IPOs, can be found here, but it’s fairly long.

Everything seems to point to an explosive growth in the robotics industry. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) projects a CARG of 15% through 2018, which means that the global market – worth already $10.7 billion in 2014 – will continue to increase at a steady rate. This is even more dramatic if one takes into account the related and supporting markets, which give a number three times as big.

The amount of equity funding and acquired companies is quite remarkable, 37 and 25 respectively so far during 2015 – already double than that of last year. The amount of revenues generated by these companies and the overall price of the deals is also noteworthy.  These deals are closely linked to R&D investments and they are taking place all over the world, in Israel, Russia, North America and especially China. Companies don’t want to be left behind in this robotic renaissance and aim to add robots to their collection of products and services.

Startups are giving robots a wide range of uses. Most of them are taking advantage of big data and the Internet of Things to deliver customized services. It’s difficult to provide a simple list of them as there are many out there, but focusing in North America, here are some that definitely stand out – and that have, according to CB Insights, received substantial VC funding just recently.

For the U.S., most of the action is coming from Silicon Valley and Massachusetts. Startups like Fetch Robotics, Harvest Automation, Bossa Nova Robotics (please check out how this robot moves!), and Rethink Robotics are changing the way workers interact with machines in warehouse-type environments. Robots are able to replace forklifts and to maneuver around obstacles and people.

There are also other startups that are taking it a step further to make robots capable of interacting with humans more directly, like the robot developed by Lowes Innovation Labs and fellow Robots, OSHbot. This one is able to interact with customers providing them with customer service (in several languages) and in- store guidance to the products they are looking for.

In Canada, the Ontario based Clearpath Robotics, which has attracted the interest of GE as one of its investors, uses the same technology as the Google self-driving car to move about and is currently changing the dynamics of the congested industrial operations floor.

Of course, not all robots are restricted to factory and warehouse settings. Savioke has developed a similar concept as the ones before but for hotels, improving the whole room service experience. Gamma2 Robotics is experimenting with security robots, and Jibo, a social robot, can be used to help around the house providing assistance and company.

Healthcare seems to be an attractive sector as well: wearable (Esko Bionics) and remote presence (iRobot) robots could help patients with rehabilitation and distant monitoring. Although not in North America, it’s also worth mentioning the Israeli Mazor Robotics, which has a robot that can perform specific surgeries.

The trend is fairly certain at the moment, more funds will definitely flow into robotics, and machines will gain more human skills. As sensor, memory storage, and wireless technology gets less expensive, and processing power rises, robots will be able to perform a wider variety of tasks in the near future.

Again, the future of robotics is palpable and people are beginning to get concerned with what the future will entail for the human race. The Future of Life Institute is actually currently working on how to mitigate the existential risks that humanity is facing right now. With the rise of robots and Artificial Intelligence, this is a very serious issue as there are military uses for robots that could steer us into the wrong path.

Nonetheless, the future looks hopeful.

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