Robots are on the rise. No this isn’t the title to some b-movie science-fiction sequel but a reality across all sectors of the economy. From hospitals to retail outlets, industrial parks to the city streets the presence of this new wave of technology is everywhere, as a prominent Silicon Valley investor notes “most of us are going to come into contact with robots in the next two to five years.
For years robots have been more the purview of imagined dystopian futures and research arms of Japanese electronics companies than actually finding a place in day to day life. However all this seems set to change. According to IDC, a tech research firm the robotics market is rising and fast. With the industry growing at a compound rate of 17% per year investment is set to top $135bn come 2019. Patent filings are also soaring, tripling in the last decade alone. Much of this is credited to China, responsible for 35% of all robot-related patents last year, twice its nearest rival Japan.
In another sign of the robotic boom venture capital investment is now close to $600m.
While these may seem like vast sums of money, when considering the manufacturing industry as a whole do they still belie a paltry investment in what many consider a change akin to a second industrial revolution?
Indeed, dig a little deeper and much of the investment is being fronted by small startups with grandiose plans, operating on a shoestring budget.
What is of great interest is the way in which the technology is developing. It is not in great leaps forward in hardware that improvements are taking form but in sophisticated software and machine learning algorithms. Indeed, the future of robotics is comparable to the old guard of robots resembling a few expensive mainframes whilst the new generation are akin to PCs, smaller, cheaper and ubiquitous. Robots will not come pre-programmed and static to perform specific tasks but will learn through extensive trial and error. The outdated vision of some kind of humanoid machine should be discarded. The future is in low cost machines designed for specific tasks with an incredible capacity for learning.
The fear of colossal job losses is also said to be overstated. Many in the industry have stressed their desire to have robots operating alongside people, enabling greater levels of productivity rather than replacing them altogether.
It would seem then an exciting and innovative time in all areas of industry. Much vaunted for decades to be the future of everything from manufacturing to in-home assistants robotics may finally be having the investments and technology to allow it to become the workplace force many have always suspected it would be.