By Srivatsa Krishna
The world is changing again forever. The invasion of robots is just around the corner, and it heralds another powerful chapter in the upcoming AI revolution. It is now reported that more than 3.5 million industrial robots have already been installed, which is more than the population of every US city except New York and Los Angeles, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
First, about 200-500 billion parcels are transported around the world every year, depending on how they are counted. Boston Robotics is one of the leading robotics companies, employs Indian engineers, and is now 80% owned by it. Hyundai. They have developed a new type of vision robot called “Stretch”. The expander can travel inside huge containers and extend their arms to easily pick up, move and place 50-pound boxes. The catch is that they have to be arranged in a certain way in the first place, so that you recognize and catch them. Their other popular robot is Spot, which dances to songs in its spare time when it’s not busy inspecting dangerous nuclear sites or roaming forests to collect data.
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Second, having taken care of a bedridden parent for many years, I can vouch for the fact that one of the most difficult tasks is to lift them out of bed and move them to a wheelchair or to the bathroom. She is sensitive, and the patient is always afraid of what doctors call a “risk of falling”, which can be fatal. Japan has created a robot in the form of a bear called the Robear that can safely pick up and transport patients.
Third, the UR10, a co-working robot, costs about $25,000 and has replaced factory workers on many store floors, including big retail giants like AmazonWalmart, etc., to name a few. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, robots will lose 85 million low-level, repetitive jobs, but 97 million new jobs will be created.
Fourth, Gita is a cute walking robot that collects and sorts groceries for you and follows you while you shop! His computer vision allows him to see, understand and interact with his surroundings, especially pedestrians. It’s like having your own butler or helping you follow you while you shop.
Fifth, in March of this year, Kodiak Robotics, one of the leading companies in the field of self-driving trucks, achieved a new milestone. It covered about 6,500 miles in half the manned truck time, driving the trucks around the clock, but with a human safety driver behind the wheel. Driverless trucks do everything a manned truck does, like navigating tough turns, getting off a ramp into a highway, etc., with ease. They stumble sometimes when they see a huge pile of cars in front of them or sometimes while on the move within the city. Several studies predict that within the next 2-3 years, there will be no need for a safe driver, and with the ongoing 5G revolution, this will make self-driving trucks ubiquitous.
Sixth, Roomba, which appeared two decades ago, is a common sight in many American homes (and now in India), mops and floor vacuum cleaners unattended. It saves the floor plan and can do so nimble and unattended and can be operated remotely if you are away for long periods. Similarly, Astro from Amazon is in many homes, working as a bouncer, playmate for the kids, and doing simple chores.
Finally, during the pandemic, due to the disruption of human life, companies have had to speed up the adoption of robots. In the pilot project at the Coffee Board of India during the pandemic, a software bot from UiPath, one of the world’s leading robotics companies was tried, with very satisfactory results. Export certification was automated with minimal human intervention, and the coffee industry was able to serve with minimal disruption to this account. (There were, of course, disruptions due to unavailability of labor and bottlenecks in the ports, which robots could also solve over time.)
Having had the privilege of touring a Tesla factory in September 2015, I was struck by the presence of more machines than humans, then. I understood from the Tesla leadership that after seven years, it was completely changed, because the plant is now largely run by machines. Optimus, its newest humanoid robot, is clumsy today, but in another five years, it will be working on its store floors and joining other humanoid robots that advance in the race.
A recent article in the academic journal Robonomics shows that much of the world, especially countries with declining and aging populations, is experiencing rapid adoption of robots. On the horizon are new bot players providing an open source bot architecture that turns complex functions into simple APIs and comes with built-in clouds for arranging production deployments.
While how the rule of robots will change our lives is utterly magical, it also raises some vexing questions. First, this world is designed for humans, and how an invasion of robots, say in another 10 years, will fit into current architecture remains to be seen. Second, there are questions about the ethics of machines that raise perplexing and dangerous questions. What should a self-driving car do when faced with the option of running over two pedestrians and killing them in exchange for saving 10 lives in a potential car crash that you anticipate only a few seconds before? Third, if robots join the workforce by the hundreds of millions, are we really approaching an age where humans have enormous free time on their hands to enjoy life in a new age of hedonism and not overburden themselves with the same work, or will they find newer jobs that are more complex and more difficult to keep busy with ? Fourth, as robots replace a hundred million or more low-level repetitive jobs, there is bound to be increased friction with unions, especially in organized industries and sectors such as ports, airports, truck driving, and factories in general, and this can lead to protracted negotiations with workers.
Last but not least, what happens if bots encounter software bugs that cause erratic or even dangerous behavior? What happens if they experience an overload in the system and it shuts down completely? What happens if some virus or malware enters the robot and the device is armed? How dangerous is this to the people around it? The answer is buried somewhere in between HollywoodTwo extreme depictions of robots either as destroyer-like creatures or as saviors of the planet.
(IAS official author. Views are personal. Twitter:srivatsakrishna)
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