The robots are coming!

Quick. Don’t think. Just answer fast. If I ask you to imagine a state of the art, cutting edge 21st century robot – what is it closer to: R2-D2 or Terminator?

Is it benign or malign? Clearly robotic or humanesque?

Why do I ask?

Mostly just because I’m interested. The image that springs to my mind is generally something akin to Terminator – a robot made in man’s image but with extra abilities (and perhaps not evil). I think that’s true for lots of people. But it’s also not particularly useful in the discussion about the current state of robotics.

Which is exactly what we’re going to look at today. Specifically, I’m going to show you how robots are being developed to work in our healthcare system and other industries – and you’re going to hear from several world leading experts in the field while we’re at it. Let’s get started…

Robots could solve Japan’s demographic time bomb

The field of robotics is also making huge strides towards the point where robots can be more fully integrated to the healthcare system. To understand what’s happening we need to look at Japan.

Why Japan? Two reasons: demographics and industry.

The industry part is easy enough to explain. Japan is famed for its industrial and manufacturing prowess. It has both the technological know-how and innovative culture needed to be a world leader in the field of robotics.

The demographic side of the story is more complex. It’s a huge problem for Japan. To put it simply, the balance between old and young in Japan is out of balance. There aren’t enough young people to care for the old. And the problem is only getting worse. By 2020 it is predicted that 29% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older. By 2050 it’s projected to be 39%.

That kind of demographic mismatch creates a bucketload of problems for society. For instance, who on earth is going to look after all those over 65s when they need medical care?

You guessed it. Robots.

I suppose in every story looking at robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) or the rise of new technologies generally, there’s a point at which you’re duty bound to insert some sort of boiler plate health warning to make it clear you’re not some cold-hearted misanthrope with a microprocessor for a heart. So here’s mine:

I know the idea of robots caring for anyone, never mind the old or infirm, gives people the creeps. I get that.

But remove fears that we’ll all soon be bowing to our robot overlords for a second and just consider a couple of simple facts. This is a real problem that isn’t going to go away. And as you’re about to see, some real industrial heavyweights are investing a serious amount of time and effort into using robots to solve it. Given that I suggest it’s best to leave the dystopian fears to science fiction and see this for what it is: an opportunity.

Robot wars and reinventing the family

We have been discussing with Alec Ross some of this stuff. He’s the author of The Industries of the Future, a New York Times best-selling book on the future of technology. Let’s take a look at what Ross has to say about robotics in the book itself:

Our future caretakers are being developed in a Japanese factory right now. Just as Japanese companies reinvented cars in the 1970s and consumer electronics in the 1980s, they are now reinventing the family. The robots depicted in the movies and cartoons of the 1960s and 1970s will become the reality of the 2020s.

Rival Japanese companies Toyota and Honda are leveraging their expertise in mechanical engineering to inventing the next generation of robots. Toyota built a nursing aide named Robina – modelled after Rosie, the cartoon robot nanny and housekeeper in The Jetsons – as part of their Partner Robot Family, a line of robots to take care of the world’s growing geriatric population. Robina is a “female” robot, 60 kilograms in weight and 1.2 meters tall, that can communicate using words and gestures.

In response, Honda has created ASIMO (the Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility robot), a fully functional humanoid that look like a four foot astronaut stuck on earth.

Those are two real industrial heavyweights. And they’re committing fairly heavily to developing a robot that can meet the need of the new wave of Japanese elderly.

Ross quotes some fairly eye catching numbers, too. In answer to the question of whether robots can really take care of humans:

Japanese private and public sectors certainly think so. In 2013, the Japanese government granted $24.6 million to companies focussing on eldercare robotics. Japan’s prominent Ministry of Economy, Trae and Industry chose 24 companies in May 2013 to receive subsidies covering one half to two-thirds of the R&D [research and development] cost for nursing care robots.

But what about the people actually working in the wider industry? Where do they think the opportunities lie? What do they think the future looks like?

Last year we spoke to Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot – a $926 million robotics firm most well known for developing the Roomba – a robotic vacuum cleaner. I would perhaps call a Roomba the driverless car of the hoover world, but then let’s face it: navigating your way from Manchester to London is exponentially harder than finding your way around the sofa in your living room.

Angle had some interesting points to make, though. And as a man who’s charged with running a commercially successful business involving robotics, he’s worth listening to:

It’s very easy to be a robot visionary. It’s very hard to be in the robot business, for all the reasons that you already clearly understand. What is going to happen is a proliferation of point solutions. The Roomba vacuums your floor and has changed the vacuuming industry. So the upright is now obsolete, and people will increasingly have a Roomba and a battery-powered handheld for the places that Roomba can’t get to, and that’s the future of vacuuming. We’ll do the same thing for web floor care, for outdoor lawn mowing and for cleaning bathrooms and ironing clothes and doing dishes. What we’re going to see is the core treadmill home maintenance tasks knocked off one by one as point-solution robots.

The idea that Rosie the Robot is going to push an upright vacuum cleaner is just not how robot vacuuming is going to happen. There’s a second class of robots, the human-interface robot, which is a robot that is derivative of this RP-Vita or the Ava 500 robot that we’re currently building, and that is more of an information gathering and communication robot. That in my mind is about as close as we’re going to get to a general purpose robot, in that it’s going to do more than one task in your home: things like security, the remote presence allowing the doctors and nurses to visit, coming to you and finding out what tasks around the home you might like to have accomplished, giving you reports on what happened today in your home.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the home of the future is going to have a menagerie of robots: the singular robot that interacts with you directly and then all of the robots which perform tasks. The robots that perform tasks will be augmented by non-robots that also perform tasks, like your light bulbs, like those vents and duct systems in your home. That which they call the Internet of things, will also play a role in this enabled smart home of the future.

That final point – the idea of a menagerie of different robots, all of them designed to perform a specific skill – is an interesting one. It links back all the way to one of the fathers of modern day capitalism, Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations. As he put it, “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.”

That’s what we’re seeing in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence right now. Machines can’t compete with humans on a general level. No robot can yet operate machinery, drive a car and perform surgery. But individual robots can specialise in all three of those tasks.

We talked about this idea with Colin Angle, asking him if he felt designing a robot to replace a human altogether was a waste of time:

It’s a seductive and tremendously wasteful pursuit. The robotic industry, if it’s going to succeed, needs to have a pragmatic approach. What’s the problem? How do I solve the problem? And the robotics industry frequently decides, ‘I should build an android and then see what it’s useful for.’ That doesn’t actually help.”

That robot just saved my life”

So – hoovers aside – where will the advance of robotic technology first make itself felt?

Where have enough advances been made to make it a reality in industry?

And where’s the best place for your money to take advantage?

Those are all good questions. They’re the same questions I put to Investment Director Eoin Treacy. He replied with the name of a company that has an incredible pedigree for creating highly skilled specific robots that thousands of hospitals worldwide need.

That’s part of a much bigger project we’re working on which, among other things, will involve specific investment recommendations you can use to take advantage of the emerging technologies we write about in Exponential Investor. We should be ready to tell you more in a couple of weeks or so. More news as I get it. (If you’d like to register your interest in that project – or have any questions about it – just drop me a note at nick@southbankresearch.com.)

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Category: Robotics

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