WTF: ROBOTS

Photo by Gordon Tarpley, Flickr

Alec Ross served as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation for the duration of her time as secretary of state. I think I initially heard his name on social media and I remember thinking he had the coolest job ever, so I started following him. Fast forward a few years, Alec Ross writes a book called the Industries of the Future where he shares his thoughts on the future of technology, our economy, jobs and anything in between, based on everything he saw and learned as Senior Innovation Advisor. As someone who has been part of the startup ecosystem for almost a decade, has been up close and personal with innovation and disruption I couldn’t help but dig into this book to try and see what the future holds. In this series of posts I’ll share some highlights form the book and review the industries of the future, so you can get a glimpse of what’s to come and go read the full book.

Why Now?
The conversation about robots may be relatively new for most people, but it’s actually been going on for a while. Recently a few meaningful advances in robotics were made possible due to the progress made in fields like big data analysis and information management, AI as well as the development of the cloud. Connecting robots to the cloud had a meaningful influence on robot’s ability to understand and interact with their environment. Being part of a robot community all linked and connected to each other’s data allows them to accelerate their learning and incorporate experiences (scary right?). Combine this learning experience in the cloud with big data and you get a massive leap in the cognitive development of robots. And they are not just getting smarter, they are also starting to look more like humans. Robots can now be constructed of new materials that no longer make them look like RT-D2 and C-3PO, but rather more like Ava from Ex Machina.

Advances in Robotics and Their Influence on The Economy
Apart from building crazy expensive pet robots for the elderly in Japan, the advances in technology have also enabled the creation of Nanorobots, tiny robots (far smaller than a grain of sand) that can diagnose and treat diseases at the cellular level. This is not the plot of a new sci-fi movie, these developments are being made all over the world, including the Bar Ilan university in Israel.

”About 70 percent of total robot sales take place in Japan, China, the United States, South Korea, and Germany — known as the “big five” in robotics. Japan, the United States, and Germany dominate the landscape in high-value industrial and medical robots, and South Korea and China are major producers of less expensive consumer-oriented robots”.

Countries who are preparing for the industries of the future are taking robotics seriously and making an investment for the future. In the US, President Obama launched the National Robotics Initiative in 2011. France pledged $126.9 million to develop its robotics industry, and the same goes to Sweden who designated innovation awards to individuals and corporations innovating in the field of robotics. Similarly, we can see that the private sector is also investing: VC investment in robotics is growing quickly: “It more than doubled in just three years, from $160 million in 2011 to $341 million in 2014”. The market for consumer robots could hit $390 billion by 2017, and industrial robots should hit $40 billion in 2020”. That is no joke, that is massive potential for growth and innovation.

Where Are You Most Likely to See Robots in The Next Few Years?
This is when we have to ask the inevitable question — will the robots compete with us human beings and take over the world, will they stay under our control and serve us, or is there a scenario in which man and machine could merge?

Let’s see what is happening around the world. 
In Japan, robots are being developed to take on the role of care takers for the elderly. With 25% of Japan’s population being 65 or older there is a need for care takers. Unfortunately, that is a demanding job and not a highly coveted one, which makes the lack of candidates a real challenge for the Japanese people. To solve this problem, companies like Toyota and Honda are already working on the next generation of care taking robots. On paper it looks like an ideal solution, no people — we’ll build robots! But what about maintaining human contact? And will you really be able to trust a robot with your parent’s life? Not sure I would.

Another industry that is facing disruption by robots is the automotive market. The industry that was just now disrupted with the likes of Uber is already gearing up to more changes as companies like Google and Tesla are working on developing autonomous cars. This goes beyond just taxis and private cars, if you look at the industry as a whole we could be looking at replacing messengers and truck drivers with self-driving trucks and delivery drones. How will this effect jobs?

“2.5 million people in the United States make their living from driving trucks, taxis, or buses, and all of them are vulnerable to displacement by self-driving cars”.

Autonomous driving cars should provide safer and quicker transportation but that’s not always the case. (remember poor Jerad from Silicon Valley being shipped to the other side of the world due to a malfunction in the car’s computer?). Recent news about a fatal Tesla autonomous car accident is challenging this assumption. It also brings up another important question. In an accident like this, who is responsible? The car manufacturer? The car owner? The developer who created the program and responsible for its updates? (interestingly this issue was discussed during an episode of “The Good Wife”).
Quite a challenge, and this is before we mentioned the possibility of using self-driving cars to commit crimes.

Another area where robots are becoming an integral part is in the operating room. “The number of robotic procedures is increasing by about 30 percent a year, and more than 1 million Americans have already undergone robotic surgery”. Take for example the da Vinci surgical system — a minimally invasive robotic system that assists doctors with complex surgeries. Another example is the Origami Robot developed by MIT researchers and could be the answer to stomach problems. The robot is meant to help in the delivery of drugs and patching of internal wounds. These medical developments are only at the beginning, there are still challenges we need to overcome before they become part of our every day routine.

How is This Going to Affect Us?
Robots can do great things for us humans, but often they are considered a threat as they are slowly starting to substitute human labor in various fields. Think about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the previous century, this time around its services industry jobs that are at risk: waiters, drivers, teachers, secretaries and many more. When a restaurant like The Hajime in Bangkok can solely use robot waiters to take orders, serve customers, and bus tables why would they need employees? So are we at risk of losing our jobs? According to an Oxford University research “Over half of US jobs could be at risk of computerization in the next two decades. Forty-seven percent of American jobs are at high risk for robot takeover, and another 19 percent face a medium level of risk”.

What does that mean for us as entrepreneurs, employee or as parents? 
Ten years ago, the advances now entering operating rooms and classrooms would have been nearly impossible to foresee. As researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors think about new applications of robotics, they are no longer considering only tasks that could be done more efficiently by a machine than a human. They are thinking more and more about doing things that humans could never have imagined doing on their own”.

As technology advances we can expect the next generation of robots to be mass-produced at low costs that will make them increasingly competitive with even the lowest-wage workers. Robots becoming main stream will dramatically affect the economy (including jobs), politics and social trends. The way to take some action is to start thinking about making education more accessible and valuable by focusing on supporting the development on new skills that will still be relevant in the era of robots. On a personal level we need to rethink our career path and professions. Are we going to be obsolete in a few years? What can we do now, how can we develop our experience in a way that makes us irreplaceable? I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely on it.