Fascination—and fear of—the interplay between man and machine is as old as industrialization itself, from Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics creating a quasi code of ethics for our potentially menacing mechanized counterparts to director James Cameron’s cinematic series featuring cyborg assassin and an ongoing battle between humanity and a race of robot warriors.
Self-actualized automatons and an impending robo-pocalypse certainly make for great science fiction. And in an era in which we define our lives largely by the work that we do, concerns about the impact of a fully mechanized workforce are understandable.
But while the quickly advancing fields of automation and artificial intelligence will most certainly revolutionize every aspect of human life—and are already making an impact on everything from military strategy to medical procedures—the future of robotics doesn’t have to be a dystopian one. Rather, as robots take over increasingly complex tasks, new forms of man-machine interaction will emerge and the structure of both industry and society will evolve to accommodate this emerging and symbiotic relationship.
The new, new robot
Already used for everything from fighting wars to cleaning floors, robots are poised to invade the personal and consumer space in the near future. A number of trends are converging that will advance the robotics field over the next 15 to 20 years and put it virtually light-years ahead of the likes of Fritz Lang’s steely-eyed machine-human in Metropolis.
- In 2010, the military and industrial market for robots ($10.9 billion) far outweighed the market for personal and commercial uses ($3.2 billion), according to analysis performed by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). By 2025, military and industrial applications will grow to $16.5 billion and $24.4 billion, respectively. Commercial and personal use will skyrocket to $17 billion and $9 billion.
- The number of Internet of Things sensors (14.8 billion as of February) will grow to 50 billion by 2020, according to Cisco. And Intel predicts there will be 200 billion Internet-connected things in 2030.
- The data universe (the amount created, replicated, and consumed annually) will swell to 44 zetabytes, or 44 trillion gigabytes, according to EMC and IDC—with 10 percent of that digital load coming from connected objects.
- The speed of analytics will intensify thirty-fold by 2030, with 95% of queries answered in mere milliseconds, according SAP estimates.
- Image, speech, and voice recognition will advance to near 100% accuracy by 2025, according to the latest published research.
- Tactile technology is improving remarkably as a result of research and development in robot-assisted medicine.
- The nascent virtual reality market will explode to $30 billion in the next five years, while augmented reality will be a $120 billion business by 2020, according to digital mergers and acquisitions advisors Digi-Capital.
- Nearly three-quarters of executives surveyed by Accenture said that just within next three years, companies will need to invest as much on training their machines as training their people.
Together, these trends will spur a new form of robotics technologies—flexible, sensory, tactile, intelligent, and interactive—with capabilities far beyond what we envision today. The result will be a wide assortment of new robot forms and applications.
A lack of imagination
Robots are already augmenting the human workforce in a number of areas. After all, they excel in crunching numbers, lifting heavy objects, working in dangerous environments, moving with precision, and performing repetitive tasks. This leads to the natural concern that we will be replaced by robots for nearly all human endeavors, resulting in a “labor-light” economy in which most work is automated and people take what little is left.
But such a prediction is based on last-century thinking. A wave of emerging technologies is already turning the industrial revolution on its head. Robots won’t simply replace workers on the assembly line. In fact there won’t be many classical assembly lines with centralized factories anymore. 3D printing and the Maker Movement will change all that.
Also disconcerting is a Terminator-esque scenario in which humanoid robots take over the globe. In reality, however, it’s anyone’s guess whether mankind could actually either invent—or enable—that level of artificial intelligence.
Instead of either scenario a different future is more probable, and likely more profitable, for everyone.
Humans still have a number of advantages over their automated counterparts, including creativity, curiosity, empathy, self-motivation, and the ability to provide fast, multidimensional feedback. And by working hand-in-hand with advanced robotics technology, we can combine the best of man and machine.
As speech and image recognition improve, memory and analytics capabilities increase, and virtual and augmented reality options advance, better, faster, and cheaper robotics options for humans will emerge.
In this future, robots in industry and society won’t be consigned to standalone workers with limited capabilities, autonomy, and artificial intelligence. There will be a new class of sophisticated man-machine units with defined autonomy, heightened empathy, and significant artificial intelligence.
Thanks to this symbiosis, we’ll be able to take on challenging adventures like colonizing our oceans or space travel in ways that neither man nor machine can accomplish alone. Artificial extensions of the human form, such as suits or exoskeletons that strengthen arms and legs, night vision, and other sensory enhancements will be commonplace.
The rise of man-machine collaboration
Today, medicine is at the forefront of man-machine advancement. Researchers at New York University and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition are developing lower-extremity exoskeletons for the disabled. At the University of California, Berkeley, robotics experts are testing a similar device designed to help parapalegics walk. Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is working on a fabric “exosuit” that works to “reduce injuries, improve stamina, and enhance balance even for [people] with weakened muscles.”
Another example is the U.S. military, which is tapping industry to develop a special outfit for commandos. Dubbed the “Iron Man” suit, it could include “super-human strength, sensors that respond directly to brain functions, and liquid armor,” according to The Washington Post. A team of researchers at Harvard University have created a prototype for a “smart suit“ that makes its wearer faster, more agile, and better able to move heavy objects. A device called Tacit helps the visually impaired actually feel objects around them. Attached to the wrist, it uses ultrasound waves to scan the surrounding area and delivers pressure to the wearer when objects get too close. A German programmer has invented a way to pilot a camera-mounted drone by using just his head.
Embracing our robot allies
There’s no denying that advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will displace some jobs performed by humans today. But for every repetitive job that is lost to automation, it’s likely that more than one interesting, creative job will take its place – a job that only a human can do. As the authors of a recent report by the Pew Research Center point out: “[A]dvances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.”
Enterprises must explore how they can best bring together the creativity and experience of their human workforce with the advanced capabilities of automation and artificial intelligence. Here are some ways to get started:
- Develop future scenarios and strategies built upon their own unique business models and industry requirements
- Digitize those business operations ripe for automation and identify those processes that benefits from human advantages like creativity and problem-solving.
- Identify functions that could be enhanced by a robot-human combination.
- Experiment with the latest sensor and robotic technologies as they emerge.
- Pilot and implement virtual and augmented reality in production and supply chains
- Invite users to come up with new design ideas and future scenarios for man-machine interaction
- Be open to imagining entirely new robotic forms and functions.
Rather than fearing either the arrival of robot overlords or the mass loss of jobs, companies should start thinking about how they might incorporate man-machine collaboration to innovate, spur growth, and invent entire new categories of work.