Autonomous robots are among the most likely candidates for the next generation of General Purpose Technologies. These kinds of technologies, practices or standards can affect economic output at the global level because of their ability to be applied to multiple sectors.
We know that robot autonomy has applications across both goods manufacturing and everyday services. While the broad productivity benefits of newly independent forms of automation can be spectacular, we can expect that no one company or inventor will truly dominate them – instead, each domain will have purpose-built or vertical-specific applications of general autonomy technology and principles which will make the biggest possible impact in those sectors.
So who really benefits from this, and who benefits most? If you’d like to understand more of what the world will look like as autonomous robots become a fact of life, read on.
Shareholders & Investors
When new technologies come to pass, it’s ultimately those who take on the risk in investing in them first that benefit most.
However, this isn’t always the case. For instance, it’s estimated that three quarters of venture investments don’t return the initial commitment and 25-30% of venture-backed businesses fail completely. While many businesses may at least return enough to justify their initial investment, both outsized risk and reward are what’s necessary to actually achieve the entirely new level of growth that most venture capitalists are expected to achieve.
At the same time, robotics has long been a challenging sector for venture capitalists because of the common limitations in adapting to different circumstances. Autonomous robots can change this, but they are still restricted to defined scenarios, locations or use cases. As we’ve seen with autonomous cars (despite the many billions invested in them), getting robots to operate with complete independence in totally unconstrained environments (like a city street) is usually a longer way off than even the most patient investors are able to manage.
Imagine, for a moment, that autonomous robots have become commonplace. What difference would they make? A few can be considered:
- With autonomy for specific tasks, managers can be certain that tasks are executed with the methods and quality they expect
- Using data-driven systems, managers can have visibility on both good performance and failures or areas for improvement – without concern for tip-toeing around a robot’s feelings
- With specialization among autonomous robots (anything from working with delivery personnel to executing tasks in a factory), managers can focus on the support and guidance of their employees, ensuring that they improve their productivity and develop critical skills over time
This sounds like a scenario in which every one of a manager’s most typical headaches is miraculously cured. While, in effect, the most effective companies are thinking of use cases for autonomous robots that optimize a manager’s happiness, what autonomous robots also do is expand the range of who acts and serves as a manager – Robot Wranglers, as CEO Mike Playter of Boston Dynamics would call it. Managers take on risk today in adopting any new technology, but as point-specific applications mature, more risk will come in simply failing to adopt what’s new.
Autonomous Robots pose a unique set of challenges and opportunities to engineers above all. How can we expect systems to work where autonomous robots are involved, and what failsafes need to be introduced in order to ensure that failures of autonomous systems don’t halt their progress. There are three categories to think about here that are most pertinent to engineers: mobility, manufacturing and public spaces.
Mobility: When we’re sitting in traffic or stuck down a long road after a wrong turn, we often don’t consider the amount of effort required in engineering traffic flow to work as seamlessly and intuitively for humans as possible. When it comes to autonomous cars, designing roads for densification, efficiency and limitations around visual signalling, roadwork diversions and other inconsistent scenarios where autonomous vehicles may not be so quick to adapt are essential. At the same time, roads can be redesigned to accommodate only autonomous vehicles that communicate with one another – meaning that traffic signals, intersections, onramps and offramps may all actually be able to go without many of the design features needed to accommodate humans. At the same time, parking and managing exits and entrances may become a lot more simple as well, since these autonomous vehicles could essentially function more as taxis than personal or family transportation.
Manufacturing: In the manufacturing space, robots have long been used to optimize the production of dirty, dangerous and repetitive jobs. The challenge here is that robots are usually cost-effective in the most repeatable and high-margin products because those are the sectors where the precision fixturing required to make robot programs effective can be facilitated. With autonomous manufacturing robots, these constraints – as well as the need for continuous production lines and intensive automation integrations – can be reduced because of their ability to respond to demands as they emerge. Working within configurable process constraints, these robots don’t need to follow the mass production practices which still guide so many of the world’s biggest manufacturers, giving them more flexibility and higher productivity than ever before.
Public spaces: of course, within public spaces, the services we require are the most important. Whether it’s healthcare, education, old age care or other designed environments, engineers can realize cost savings for their clients by improving the flexibility and multi-purpose capacity of these facilities according to the services that can be performed by robots. In one example, autonomous mobile robots can help hospitals centralize and better manage the distribution of medicine and equipment, saving space and increasing the efficiency of use for all their essential goods. This kind of autonomy can also reduce the total human footprint in situations where stuff like – oh let’s “imagine” a contagious virus hopping about – improving the overall outcomes of hospital care while improving the flexibility and creativity of facility design.
Overall, autonomous robots don’t specifically benefit engineers more than anybody else. They might actually increase the need for engineers to rethink our spaces to best optimize around new autonomous capabilities. More engineers is always a good thing for existing engineers, isn’t it?
Job theft is always an accusation leveled against robots, but that simply isn’t true. Since manufacturing robots were introduced – for example – the number of manufacturing robots and total manufacturing productivity worldwide has increased dozens of times over. What’s more, as consumers the proportion of dollars we spend on goods has halved, while we devote more of our consumption to services that ultimately create even more employment.
Two questions are important to ask about the state of the workforce, however: 1) do people have the skills they need to make a good living and 2) do people have the tools they need to be productive in making their living? In both of these cases, the answer seems to be no, and yet autonomous robots may help change that.
For one, autonomous robots with sufficient flexibility can take over highly specialized tasks that may simply not be as cost-effective for workers to learn from a skills vs pay perspective. At the same time, focusing entirely on a specialized set of skills often keeps people from achieving more generalist work goals that are still valuable and contribute substantially to overall productivity.
Overall, it’s the lack of automation and autonomy that could actually be keeping workers from making higher wages and experiencing a higher standard of living. While businesses may sometimes be hesitant to invest, subsidies and encouragement to automate could create an uncapitalized profit opportunity that would make workers more scarce in the pursuit of profits – precisely because all the tools except for the workers are in place to enable firms to grow.
Who Benefits Most is Hard to Say
We all fill different roles, we are both members of classes and consumers in our society. What we need to understand is that technology may cause disruption, but it’s a fundamental enabler of improvement and growth in our day to day lives. Would we love to go back before laundry machines and manually wash our clothes, or have someone do it for us? Do we bemoan the loss of elevator or traffic light operators?
These roles were once a substantial portion of the workforce – the people who filled them were able to move on to better lives. People forget, for instance, that the refrigerator gained market share during the great depression, actually contributing to some of the deflation (in food savings) which caused farmers so much pain. Do we think there was a better time to incorporate refrigerators, or otherwise go back to the old ways? As a society, we must manage the transitions that come, but as a society, we can’t pretend like staying in the same place doesn’t simply mean falling behind.
With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.