If you have been hearing about Thomas Piketty’s ‘must read’ book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, you might have heard one of his central tenets is that economic growth is driven by deep structural factors related to demographics and technology rather than policy changes.
It is feasible that between 2017 and 2025 we will see much of this economic growth Piketty has documented brought about by advances in robotics, and yes there will also be inequality that he has referenced, but there are at least 5 areas in robotics that can have a positive impact on society, economically and functionally.
Robotics is at an inflection point — a bend in the curve where many technologies that used to be found only in science fiction are becoming everyday reality.
I have documented 5 areas in robotics that will lead to structural change below. I’m deliberately omitting Industrial Robots from this list, although I do believe that more flexible robots such as those from Universal Robots, Unbounded Robotics and Baxter from Rethink Robotics will have a major impact on the workplace. Estimating the global manufacturing labor costs at $6 trillion annually, McKinsey forecast that advanced robotics could have an economic impact on the manufacturing sector of between $720 billion to $1.45 trillion annually.
Likewise I am omitting ‘service robots for personal and domestic use’ such as robots that will help the elderly or take over household chores. Whilst there are some advances in this area, and many agree it could be a trillion dollar market, the early growth of what is likely to be a multi-billion dollar business will come from automation in our homes with the Internet of Things, Roomba and companion robots for elderly care (More than 1,000 Paro therapeutic robots are being used in Japanese hospitals and nursing homes and the same number is claimed to be used in Denmark). Many trials have shown that robots can have a very positive impact on elderly care and I do believe this segment will grow considerably in the coming decades, despite the misgivings from a recent Pew study which indicated some 65% of American respondents to their survey consider robot caregivers would be ‘worse’ for society.
Technologies like 3D printers will begin to unleash breakthroughs in manufacturing, enabling smaller batches of highly customized products at declining price points. Whilst I believe that 3D printing will be a huge market – it does not fit the mould of pure robotics, although the two can complement each other.
I have also omitted military uses of robotics from this list, a market that is already significant and set to ‘explode economically’ over the coming years.
The 5 areas in Robotics, which are already here, that I believe will have a major economic impact and help to transform society over the next decade or so are:
- Medical Procedures, Operations and Health
- Prosthetics and Exoskeletons
- Artificial Assistants
- Driverless Cars
To quote William Gibson: “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones, are currently principally used by the military, but there is a growing demand for non-military usage in the civil environment for a number of governmental functions, like policing, border control, search and rescue, fire fighting, ground traffic surveillance, and pollution control. There is also a strong recognition that lightweight low altitude drones can be a valuable solution in commercial ventures such as farming, logistics, mapping, real-estate sales and inspection, oil and gas pipeline monitoring cinematic filming and security monitoring.
The list of potential uses is vast. Whilst regulations are being discussed in the US and Europe, drones have already being deployed for prescription drug delivery in Germany, crop spraying and inspection in farming, wildlife protection in Africa, drug monitoring and border control and policing in various States and energy companies use drones to check the undersides of oil platforms for corrosion and repairs.
The issue is not whether these products will be adopted once the airspace is integrated, but at what rate.
Earlier this year Business Insider forecast that 12% of an estimated $98 billion (equivalent to $11.76 billion) in cumulative global spending on aerial drones over the next decade will be for commercial purposes.
In a comprehensive report the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicted that drones could have a cumulative $82 billion economic impact on the US alone between 2015 and 2025.
On average analysts indicate the commercial and civil small and lightweight drone market could deliver some $10 to $15 billion in global sales by 2020.
The US Federal Aviation Authority estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial drones will be in use, in the US alone, within five years once the necessary regulations are in place.
The next 5 years for drones is very promising. Expect to see drones becoming part of society’s information infrastructure as News agencies, TV companies, photographers, real estate agents, moviemakers, industrial giants, pizza deliveries, logistic companies, local governments, agriculture and others embrace drone technology.
- Medical Procedures and Operations
The US Roadmap for Robotics indicates that several major societal drivers for improved healthcare access, affordability, quality, and personalization can be addressed by robotics technology. The Report states: “It is essential to continue to develop and deploy robot systems for improvement in medical procedures and to reduce the overall cost of care.”
I split Medical Robots into three areas: Diagnostic systems, Robot-assisted surgery and therapy and Rehabilitation systems.
Medical robotics is considered one of the success-stories of service robotics and has great potential to revolutionize clinical practice by:
- Facilitating medical processes by precisely guiding instruments, diagnostic equipment and tools for diagnosis and therapy.
- Improving safety and overall quality of the medical surgery
- Enhancing the cost-effectiveness of patient care
- Improving the training and education of medical personnel through the use of simulators
- Promoting the use of information in diagnosis and therapy.
Surgical robots improve the accuracy of procedures and thus reduce the complication rates in surgeries. Apart from being accurate, robotic procedures also offer significant cost savings in terms of pre- and post-operation care costs and length of stay at hospitals. There are large numbers of academic papers attesting to the superior outcomes delivered by medical robotics and much analysis on the cost benefits.
IBM’s Watson may become the best diagnostician in the world and be greatly in demand contributing billions to IBM’s sales whilst potentially saving millions of lives.
The global medical robotic systems market was worth $5.48 billion in 2011 and is expected to reach $13.6 billion in 2018, growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.6% from 2012. Surgical robots are expected to enjoy the largest revenue share.
The costs and the benefits of medical robots are significant and I believe this sector will continue to grow enormously.
- Robotic Prosthetics and Exoskeletons
Every day, at least 500 people in the United States undergo an operation to amputate one or more of their limbs. More than 80 percent of those surgeries are vascular-related, caused by conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. According to the Amputee Coalition two million American live with the loss of a limb, the number is expected to double in the coming decades as people live longer.
Prosthetics and exoskeletons offer major improvements in the life of people that may have lost a limb, or have another movement disability. Many modern prosthetics now contain microprocessors, sensors and actuators to improve their functionality.
The field of prosthetics is now evolving into making exoskeletons; these wearable, ‘bionic devices’ enable wheelchair users to walk again. Professor Illah Nourbakhsh says prosthetics does far more than just allow someone to walk. “We are headed to where people will have robotic legs instead of a wheelchair,” he says. “It changes the relationship we have by being able to physically see eye to eye with someone, how a whole conversation goes.
The economic market is currently quite small, somewhere around $100 to $150 million, however with the recent advances of prosthetics and exoskeletons it is expected to grow considerably to over $1.5 billion in the next 3 to 5 years and higher still thereafter.
- Artificial Assistants
This domain has the largest possible early impact on the largest number of people. Artificial Intelligence pioneers such as Google Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweill have indicated anyone with a smartphone or tablet will be using ‘cognitive assistants’ by 2017.
The European Union have provided estimations of the 2013 AI market at €700 million (or $959 million), and expect it to grow exponentially over the coming years, exceeding €27 billion (or $35 billion) by 2015. Much of this will be in cognitive artificial assistants.
Google, Microsoft, Apple, Intel and IBM are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development costs to advance the capabilities of these cognitive assistants and capture market share.
Google CEO Larry Page further acknowledged his company’s efforts to pursue AI for the sake of increased productivity through ‘Google Now’ at the TED 2014 conference. Whilst explaining the rationale for Google’s acquisition of DeepMind he said: “Imagine if this kind of intelligence was thrown at your schedule.” This is also something that has been echoed by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and many others in the industry.
As I wrote in my Harvard Business Review article: The more I use this technology the more it recognizes how I break down tasks and the times of day I am most productive, ensuring that I am most efficient on high priority tasks. The ability of today’s cognitive assistants is really quite remarkable, but it is just the beginning.
Thanks to continued progress by A.I. researchers, the long-imagined potential of cognitive assistants is finally arriving. As robots become increasingly intelligent, so too will we.
- Driverless Cars
Autonomous vehicles, including the iconic Google self-driving cars, will be on the road commercially before 2018. The long-term impact on society of self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles will be a radical change in how we commute. There will also likely be a sharp reduction in traffic accidents, the majority of which are caused by human error.
Gary Silburg and Richard Wallace of KPMG have written: Driverless cars “technology could provide solutions to some of our most intractable social problems — the high cost of traffic crashes and transportation infrastructure, the millions of hours wasted in traffic jams, and the wasted urban space given over to parking lots, just to name a few.”
Quantifying the economic impact over the next decade is likely to be in the tens of billions of dollars.
Driverless cars have the potential to fundamentally alter transportation systems by averting deadly crashes, providing critical mobility to the elderly and disabled, increasing road capacity, saving fuel, and lowering emissions. By 2035 to 2050 Morgan Stanley predicts annual $1.3 trillion in savings in the United States (with over $5.6 trillions globally) from driverless cars.
There are still many obstacles before driverless cars are available commercially but advances are being made and they could be with us sooner than we think.
It’s a very exciting time in robotics, representing huge opportunities; which will have a very positive affect on society. As these technologies become integral to our daily life we will see the benefits even more.