For good or ill, 2014 may be the year of the robot

The new year may be shaping up to be the year of the robot. According to Tom Risen in U.S. News & World Report, “Google, Amazon, and Apple each spent millions on robotics in 2013, which could inspire development of artificial intelligence, along with deployment of robots in factory work, delivery, and beyond.” And robots may increasingly be appearing within the home as well as in the factory and logistics chain, based on exhibits at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which featured robots ranging from family companions to window washers.

Risen in U.S. News cites a Bloomberg report that Apple is investing $10.5 billion (according to the company's 2014 capital-expenditure  forecast) in robotics and related manufacturing technologies. Risen adds that Google had a busy 2013, acquiring eight robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics. And Google continues to make progress with its autonomous vehicles, while Amazon investigates the possibility of having drones delivering packages to your front door.

As for what might be inside your front door, Lauren Orsini at ReadWrite has a summary of five “adorable” robots presented at CES, including Budgee, from Five Elements Robotics, which follows you around and helps you carry things; DiscoRobo, from Tosy, which detects music and dances to it; Synergy Swan, from Rbot, which can carry around a cellphone to convey a telepresence; RAPIRO, from Kiluck Corp., which is programmable via the Raspberry Pi Linux computer; and Paro, from Paro Robots, a cuddly $6,000 robotic caregiver.

Jeff Bertolucci at InformationWeek cites some other cute robots, such as Tyche, from AIBrain, which is a family companion that can recognize people and speak and listen to them. Perhaps a more practical robot on Bertolucci's list is Winbot, from Ecovacs Robotics, which will wash your windows.

Like me, Kashmir Hill of Forbes wasn't able to physically attend CES. Unlike me, she was able to attend via one of 10 telepresence robots deployed at the show by Suitable Technologies. Writes Hill, “I downloaded software from Suitable Technologies that allowed me to operate one of [the company's] $16,000 Beams, a motorized stand with eight hours of battery life and a 17-inch flat screen that displays my face. It looks a lot like an iPad glued to a Segway.”

Hill seemed to find her telepresence at CES worthwhile, although there were drawbacks. She writes, “It’s pretty great to be able to see what the show looks like. However, it’s hard to actually get information out of people in a journalistic way. I’m definitely not going to be able to take a source to a bar and get them liquored up with this thing. Most people are too fascinated by the medium to concentrate on a substantive conversation about anything other than my robot body.” She also reports getting thrown out of the iRobot booth: “I may feel like a person, but to the people working there, I’m a competitor’s product.”

The robots at CES seem little more than interesting toys for early adopters, and self-driving vehicles and package-delivery drones are years away from general acceptance and widespread deployment—in fact I doubt the Amazon drone delivery scheme ever catches on. But manufacturing robotics technology from companies like Apple is here and presents significant challenges.

A recent paper from Oxford University suggests robots and computers will be able to fill nearly half of U.S. jobs, although research by Metra Martech suggests any lost manufacturing jobs will be offset by new jobs in distribution and services. (See “Robots: Will They Hire or Fire Us?“)

Rick Wartzman, writing October 16 in The American Prospect, summed up the problem: “As the labor market continues to struggle to recover all of the jobs lost during the Great Recession, the question that haunted the 1950s is rising again: Have we reached a stage at which technology is destroying more jobs than it is creating? After all, what took 1,000 people to churn out in 1950—when blue-collar work could launch someone with a high-school degree into the middle class—now takes fewer than 200.”

Thomas L. Friedman addresses the problem in his Sunday New York Times column today. He writes, “My favorite story in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s fascinating new book, The Second Machine Age, is when the Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner was asked how he’d prepare for a chess match against a computer, like IBM’s Deep Blue. Donner replied: 'I would bring a hammer.'”

Friedman continues, “Donner isn’t alone in fantasizing that he’d like to smash some recent advances in software and automation—think self-driving cars, robotic factories, and artificially intelligent reservationists—which are not only replacing blue-collar jobs at a faster rate, but now also white-collar skills, even grandmasters!”

Consequently, Friedman writes, “… average is over, because employers now have so much easier, cheaper access to above-average software, automation, and cheap genius from abroad.”

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