The consumerization of robots and its impact

The next industrial revolution will be powered by artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and especially robotics, and consumerization will be the primary driver for innovation.


Imagine a world without cars, airplanes, phones, TVs, and computers. Without many of the goods we enjoy every day. Goods we find so readily at our corner store, or at our fingertips. Poof, it's all gone. That's a world without an industrial revolution.

An invention is just an idea if nobody buys it. Consumerization fueled the first (steam power), second (electrification and mass production), and third (computing) Industrial Revolutions. It will also drive what many are calling the fourth industrial revolution (Industrie 4.0 in Europe), where cyber-physical systems will blur the lines between our biological, physical, and digital worlds.

This next wave of exponential technological growth will be powered by artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and robotics. The kind of automation only seen in movies will now be in our homes. A wireless super-connected world with endless possibilities, but not without its perils.

Costs decrease, innovation increases 

Released in October, the 2016 edition of the U.S. Robotics Roadmap explores the possibilities and challenges ahead. It addresses the effects of consumerization. As noted, when advanced technologies are introduced into the vast consumer market, costs decrease and the pace of innovation increases. We saw this with personal computers and mobile phones.

Now robots, made smarter by enabling technologies like sensors and AI, are on the cusp of consumerization. And with it comes new and unanticipated players in the robotics arena, not your traditional industrial automation companies.

Henrik Christensen, director of the contextual robotics institute and professor of computer science and engineering at University of California San Diego, led more than 150 researchers across the nation in authoring the latest edition of the Robotics Roadmap. Christensen notes how these nontraditional players will shake things up, for the better.

"You have companies like Amazon, Google, very different players entering into the space. If you asked 10 years ago who would be one of the big players in robotics, nobody would have said Amazon. Foxconn is saying they've installed close to a million robots in their electronics factories. Ten years ago, we would never have thought of Foxconn. We would have thought of them as a potential big customer, but never a big producer of robots. These companies are coming in, ignoring the established guard, and just going for it."

Henrik Christensen will work with interdisciplinary teams at the Contextual Robots Institute to develop safe, human-friendly robots for integration into our daily lives. Courtesy: RIA, Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San DiegoNew players, new paradigms 

Christensen said the biggest market for robotics going forward may not be in traditional manufacturing. It will come from the consumer sector.

"Facebook, Google, Toyota, Huawei, they are all coming from a consumer industry. They don't have the legacy issues. They can go after these markets without questioning whether it's compatible with what they did last year. They don't care. They're used to addressing the masses. Somebody like Google doesn't want to think about a product if they cannot sell at least one million units in the first generation. They are coming with a very different thought process. It will be healthy for the industry," he added, noting that we've already seen this in the service robotics industry.

"If we look at iRobot, they built a vacuum cleaner and they didn't have to worry about whether it was a good vacuum cleaner. They didn't have a reputation to protect. They put it on the market and it turned into a huge success. They could disrupt the market in a way that would have been very difficult for the existing companies (traditional vacuum manufacturers).

"There are a number of new players that want to become next-generation robotics companies," Christensen added. "Because they don't have a legacy, they are going to do this much faster. You will see companies like GE and IBM coming into this space and trying to be very active players."

You don't have to look far to find the evidence. GE Ventures invested in Rethink Robotics and uses its collaborative robots on GE's assembly lines. Amazon's founder is also a Rethink investor, and of course, let's not forget Amazon's historic purchase of Kiva's mobile robots. IBM's Watson supercomputer has teamed up with social robot Pepper and Hilton Hotels' concierge robot, Connie. Google (now Waymo) has been in the self-driving car arena since 2009 and is now combining cloud robotics and deep learning to teach robots new skills.

"I think the combination of games, and virtual and augmented reality is going to allow us to build user interfaces that we've never seen before. You're now getting an abundance of other companies like Magic Leap (mind-blowing), Facebook, Google, and Amazon that are developing 3D vision and other advanced technologies. We're going to see much better visual processing and much better user interfaces." 

Consumerization drives mass adoption

The byproduct of robotics consumerization could be greater acceptance and adoption of robots across industries. As noted in the Roadmap, when people are accustomed to interacting with robots in their personal lives, they will be more accepting of working with them in their professional lives. They will be less likely to view robots as a threat.

The Roadmap attributes several benefits to the widespread deployment of advanced robotics and automation in manufacturing:

  • Retain intellectual property and wealth that would go offshore otherwise.
  • Save companies by making them more competitive.
  • Create jobs for maintaining and training robots.
  • Employ human-robot teams that safely leverage each other's strengths.
  • Improve worker safety (reduce carpal tunnel, back injuries, burns, and inhalation hazards).
  • Increase agility, allowing systems to be more responsive to changes in retail demand.

Another record-breaking year for robotics 

These benefits are catching on. Once again, North American orders and shipments for industrial robots were up in 2016. In the robotics industry, breaking records has become almost commonplace.

A record 34,606 robots valued at $1.9 billion ordered from N. American companies during 2016, an increase of 10% in units and 7% in dollars over 2015. A record 30,875 robots valued at $1.8 billion were shipped to N. American customers in 2016, an increase

With heightened interest during the recent election cycle on U.S. manufacturing and its revitalization, robotics and automation will continue to be top of mind.

Manufacturing, healthcare, and unmanned vehicles

Christensen said that UC San Diego's proximity to industry will play a major role in helping Southern California become a hub for robotics development. The program's overall focus will be on empowering humans, whether that's in manufacturing, healthcare, or intelligent autonomous systems, their three main focus areas.

"The fact that I can see General Atomics factory from my office, and if I stand on the roof of this building I can see the Northrup Grumman facilities, makes a big difference," he said, noting that General Dynamics and Boeing also have facilities in Southern California. "My position here at UC San Diego is partly sponsored by QualComm. For that reason we have a very strong aerospace interest. But we also have a very strong biomanufacturing sector with gene sequencing and lab automation. So we'll be very bio-, aero-, electronics-focused for the manufacturing side."

The Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego aims to empower people using robots. Courtesy: RIA, Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego

He said San Diego also has the largest healthcare system in California, citing the VA San Diego Healthcare System, UC San Diego Health, and Scripps Health.

"For healthcare, one of our milestones is to provide robotic systems that would allow people to stay another 5 years in their homes (aging in place) rather than having to go to a managed care facility," he said. "In the U.S., we're going to see a 70% increase in people above 65 within the next 5 years. A lot of them will have challenges in terms of getting out of bed, getting dressed, taking a shower, getting mobility to go to social functions, remembering to take their medications, and preparing meals. We have a big effort working with a major industrial sponsor on what it would take to build robots that would assist people in their homes."

Christensen is working to bridge the university's engineering, computer science, and social sciences teams.

"UC San Diego has the best cognitive science department in the world. We want to understand how robots can become the best possible complement to humans for work, for independent living. Given that we have a strong engineering department and a strong cogsci, if I put them in the same room, we can do things that you couldn't do otherwise."

In intelligent autonomous systems, Christensen is looking at air, land and sea autonomous vehicles.

"We have Qualcomm and NXP doing self-driving cars. We have SPAWAR," referring to Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, the U.S. Navy's technical center in San Diego, which is working on next-generation unmanned systems and autonomous vehicles. We have a company called Litx that does self-driving trucks, and QualComm is trying to get into unmanned aerial vehicles big time," he added.

Autonomous driving cars growing faster than expected

Christensen is very clued in to what is happening in the robotics industry, but even he didn't anticipate the growth in autonomous driving cars. "The Roadmap is somewhat of a prediction of where we think the world will be 5, 10 and 15 years from now. But we clearly underestimated how fast autonomous driving cars were going to progress. We thought it would be 10 years out." (The previous edition was published in 2013.)

"The fact that Audi, Ford, GM, Mercedes, and KIA all predict that by 2020 they will have autonomous driving cars for sale is pretty amazing. It's also amazing how some of the technology is already getting into trucks."

A platoon of self-driving trucks hit Europe's roadways in 2016. Now autonomous semis are undergoing tests on U.S. highways and projected to go mainstream sooner than expected. "That was a big surprise to us," Christensen said. "We never thought it would go this quickly."

He's not convinced that we'll see driverless transportation in large scale by 2020, as many automakers have predicted. The driverless landscape is fraught with safety and liability implications, not to mention infrastructure issues. In December 2016, Mich. became the first state to adopt statewide autonomous vehicle regulations.

"We'll start to see trucks that will be mainly driverless, or where the drivers on interstates are largely supervisors and driving is automatic," Christensen said. "This is what the national highway association (NHTSA) terms Level 4 autonomy. Level 5 is a car with no steering wheel. That is clearly much further away."

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