For years people have been speculating when robots might be ready to go mainstream. Back at the beginning of 2007, Bill Gates famously declared robots as the “next big thing” and that the industry was at the same place as the PC market in the late 70s – just ready to take off! Well, we’ve been waiting for a while now. But something significant has indeed transpired in the last 7 years that we didn’t see on the horizon – the smartphone. The release of the iPhone a few months after Bill Gates declaration would signal the beginning of the mobile revolution, and that fact – along with cloud technologies and social/collaboration breakthroughs – has transformed how we live, the way we do business, and how we interact with others.
But there are even more reasons to think that we’ve entered a different technological era now than a mere 5-7 years ago. In an interview in February, PBS NewsHour’s Making Sense talked to authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of “The Second Machine Age” about what was different with the latest wave of technological innovation. Their response was as follows:
We are at an inflection point. The first big inflection point in human history was about 200 years ago, when the steam engine started the industrial revolution. That was a period that saw a whole set of new machines come along that could automate muscle power, physical work. In recent years, we are seeing a wave of technologies that can augment, automate all sorts of cognitive tasks and we think, ultimately, those will have as big, or an even bigger effect on humanity as the first industrial revolution.
At Gartner’s annual Symposium/Itxpo conference in Orlando at the beginning of October, Peter Sondergaard, SVP and Global Head of Research, made the following startling claim during his keynote:
Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025. New digital businesses require less labor; machines will make sense of data faster than humans can.
We’ve heard a lot lately about the confluence of emerging and disruptive technologies in the area of mobile, cloud, and collaboration, or what Gartner also calls the “Nexus of Forces” (Social, Mobile, Information, and Cloud). Indeed, we’re experiencing unprecedented rates of technological change to the point that what was considered science fiction a few years ago is now on the front pages. Smartwatches, augmented reality glasses, virtual assistants that can understand speech, driverless cars, and drones are the stuff of present day reality. And that includes robots!
There are two developments in the world of robotics that indicate why 2015 may be a breakout year for this long-awaited technology. The first involves a transformation that has been shaping up in business offices over the past few years. Telepresence robots, which are usually similar in shape and design to a Segway device, are wheeled systems that are controlled wirelessly by means of a computer or smartphone. These mobile video conferencing machines– compared to “Skype on Wheels” – enable end users to bridge the distance gap and offer means to remotely drive around the office, talk to colleagues, attend meetings, and interact as if they were physically present.
A number of Telepresence devices began to emerge about 5 years ago, but the price points on these were generally high – on average of $10,000 or more. But now thanks to the combination of the “Nexus of Forces,” we’re seeing the prices of Telepresence robotics drop significantly. And as prices fall, the technology becomes more accessible.
Turning yourself into a robot is becoming a trendy and more cost effective way to connect to your workplace remotely. And because of the decrease in price points there are significantly more options available now in a market that was previously prohibitive to the average consumer. Telepresence as a technology is really at an inflection point and well within the reach of those who want a better experience connecting to the office.
The other major development of note, much more recent, looks to take the retail world by storm. About a month ago Lowe’s Innovation Labs in partnership with Fellow Robots, introduced what may well become the first commercially available “retail robot.” The OSHBot, as it’s called, is a human-sized, multi-lingual robot currently on display at the Orchard Supply Hardware Store in San Jose, CA. Upon entering the store, the OSHBot greets the customer and asks if they need help finding anything. OSHBot is equipped with a 3D sensing camera that scans and identifies the searched for object and then in no time wheels itself through the aisles, leading the pleasantly surprised customer to their target.
OSHBot represents the latest technological advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, wireless networking, voice recognition and design prototyping, and is all about “reimagining retail.” By using smart retail robots to dramatically improve the customer experience, Lowe’s and Fellow Robots appear to be implementing a long-awaited vision that technologists have been speculating about for decades.
So will robots finally go mainstream in 2015? With the rapid pace of technological transformation that we’ve seen over the past few years, and the emergence of more robots in offices, and now entering the world of retail, things certainly appear that way. Now more than ever, it looks like their next stop will be the home; are you ready?