INSIGHT

Deus ex machina?

Meet the new wave of robots

Robots. They’re stalwarts of factory floors and research labs. But - get your head round this one - they’re about to become part of your daily life as well.

When was the last time a robot popped by your hotel room with forgotten toothpaste? Delivered a hot curry from the takeaway? Or set off through the hospital to take your urgent blood sample to the machine about to test it?

No, us either. So perhaps we’re not as ‘hipster’ as others.

Because, TechCrunch reports, all this is already happening. Firms like SaviokeStarship Technologies and Aethon are selling single-purpose robots that do those exact-same things. And there’s more where that came from.

“These kinds of devices are at the forefront of a wave of machines with the potential to work with greater autonomy, at a lower cost, in everything from hospitality and retail to package delivery and situational monitoring,” notes TechCrunch writer, Ramamurthy Slvakumar.

Roomba's false start

But haven’t we been here before, in a blaze of Wired-like wide-eyed fascination? It’s almost 14 years since the launch of the Roomba range of nimble vacuum cleaners, which many observers saw as the arrival of robots into daily life. But, without a cost-effective way to give machines awareness of their environment, the surge became a whimper.

The problem has now been solved thanks to cheaper 3D cameras, faster processors and machine-learning algorithms. Robots can respond to unexpected obstacles. For example, Aethon’s TUG can is smart enough to know when lifts and hallways are too busy. No-one’s going to be squashed to death by a robot.

But what about the consequences for the workforce? Are jobs about to be exterminated? Whatech.com concludes...

“Robots such as TUG can complete the work of three full-time employees…They’re mainly used because of their ability to perform repetitive tasks at high speeds, reliably and without fatigue. The robotic method poses great benefits, not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of cost-effectiveness, ease of use and other such factors.”

 
 

The robot bubble

The writing is on the wall. Machines aren’t just more reliable and energetic than humans, they’re also cheaper and don’t complain. Whatech predicts the global robotics market is on the verge of massive growth, predicting a climb from £4.1bn in 2015 to £13bn in 2023. There are tens, if not hundreds, of firms grappling for a piece of what, if investors react and over-commit, might one day be labelled the “robot bubble”.

Which industries will the machines force into submission first? Hospitality, particularly the fast food sector, is already being disrupted. San Francisco-based startup, Momentum Machines, has automated burger production from start to finish, including patty flips and a final splash of ketchup. Earlier this year Business Insider reported the former McDonald’s CEO Ed Renzi revealed it is “cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who's inefficient making $15 an hour bagging french fries.” The burger chain has already introduced touch-screen kiosks throughout the UK; customers can already order a meal without human interaction.

Bionic bar people

The hotel industry is ripe for disruption too. Savioke’s room service robots are proving a huge hit with guests in the US hotels where they’re being trialled. Meanwhile at the Hilton McLean Hotel in Virginia there’s an IBM Watson-powered concierge to help with the finishing touches of  a guest’s stay. The Royal Caribbean cruise line has a popular Bionic Bar on two of its ships, featuring robotic bartenders that take orders via an app and then mix cocktails.

Drone drop-offs

Deliveries will also be disrupted by a new wave of bionic postmen, which look nothing like their human counterparts. As noted in Food Service Equipment Journal, JustEat’s foray into automated home delivery is being conducted by six-wheeled “electric trolleys”, which look a bit like giant motorcycle helmets. Amazon is investing heavily in drone delivery with a Prime Air development centre here in the UK. Domino’s has experimented with drone pizza drop-off, but so far no company has successfully used the method for commercial delivery.

A boom from Brexit?

Many feel the true shockwave of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union has yet to be felt, with predictions of an economic slump and job losses when Brexit actually happens. What has this to do with robots? Some experts predict Brexit will provide the perfect circumstances for them to take on manual labour. Prof Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams University, told the House of Lords' Science and Technology Select Committee that new technology could disrupt agriculture. “There is this opportunity... to be able to replace significant numbers of seasonal workers with highly automated machines,” he said.

Meanwhile The Times reports fears of a post-Brexit worker shortage has led UPS to invest in more automation in its British depots. There’s a more positive outlook from Information-Age.com, which predicts increasing automation in 2017, but assures worried workers that “whilst some jobs will be lost, new ones will be created.”

Prepare to move sideways not up

The last word belongs to Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, Lynda Gratton, who is unequivocal about where the rise in robots is leading.

She says: “Studies have suggested that a third of jobs in Europe will be replaced by technology over the next two decades. As middle-skilled roles disappear, workers may find that the 'rung' above them no longer exists, and that the career ladder may begin to look more like a career web. The ultimate implication is that workers cannot now expect to gain seniority by moving 'up', but rather moving sideways by gaining additional complex skills.”

So robots will not exterminate jobs entirely – but they could well be responsible for more sideways moves.

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