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We already recapped the most memorable and most popular stories of 2022, as well as the major acquisitions. You can find all of The Robot Report‘s 2022 Year in Review coverage here.
With 2023 just underway, we asked some of the robotics industry’s leading minds to look to the future. Here’s what they’ll be keeping an eye on in 2023. This article will be updated if additional experts weigh in.
Ken Goldberg, professor, industrial engineering and operations research; UC Berkeley; William S. Floyd Jr. distinguished chair in engineering, UC Berkeley; co-founder & chief scientist, Ambi Robotics
Two of my predictions for 2022 were accurate (the rise of tactile sensing and Sim2Real), but the division of labor between robots and humans is still evolving. On the other hand, I didn’t anticipate the quantum leap in performance of Transformer architectures for Large Language Models (LLMs) such as Stable Diffusion and ChatGPT.
Here are three predictions for 2023:
Transformer architectures will have an increasing influence on robotics
LLMs learn by ingesting vast quantities of human-written text to set millions of weights in a transformer sequential network architecture. LLMs are not grounded in physical experience, but textual captions and images can be integrated to produce surprisingly interesting hybrid images. A recent project by Google researchers shows how LLMs can provide semantic links between human requests (“please help me clean up this spill”) and robot affordances (a sponge within reach). It’s not clear yet exactly how, but I think we’ll see Transformer architectures applied to robotics in 2023 using similarly large sample sizes, such as examples of driving that are being collected by Google, Cruise, Toyota, Tesla, and others.
ROS 2 will gain traction as a standard for industrial robots
The Open Source Robotics Corporation (OSRC) is dramatically revising the new version of ROS to make it much more reliable and compatible with industry standards. In December, Intrinsic, a division of Alphabet, acquired OSRC to combine forces and boost the speed, reliability, and security of this standard and to integrate the latest advances in software architectures and cloud computing. The process will take longer than one year, but I think we’ll see ROS 2 taken much more seriously by major robotics and automation companies in 2023.
Indoor farming using agricultural robotics will mature
Advances in LED lighting and hydroponics developed for “recreational” crops are being adopted by indoor farming centers located in large warehouses proximal to urban centers. Robotics can be used to monitor and fine-tune lighting and temperature to observe plant conditions, allowing fresh crops to be harvested every week. Indoor crops avoid pesticides and require far less water than traditional farming because there is little evaporation and almost no washing and local farms reduce transportation costs. I look forward to eating more spotless fresh lettuce and produce in 2023
Aaron Prather, director of robotics and autonomous systems program, ASTM International
2023 is going to be the year where there will be more opportunities for robotics research through numerous government programs. Two of the biggest will be via the Manufacturing Extension Program (MEP) and Manufacturing USA, which both are seeing boosts in no small part due to the CHIPS Act. Both programs will see massive increases in their federal funding. MEP will see an over 70% increase in funding, while Manufacturing USA will see a whopping nearly 500% increase in funding.
Much of the increase in funding for Manufacturing USA will be to open more institutes to join fellow existing Manufacturing USA organizations like the ARM Institute in Pittsburgh, CESMII in Los Angeles, and MxD in Chicago. These new institutions will focus on the semiconductor industry from materials to production to shipping. Each vertical will require automation and robotics research.
This does not mean the existing 16 Manufacturing USA institutions will go lacking. Not only are most of them seeing increases in their core funding, but they will also get funding from new sources to expand into more areas. All of this is going to lead to numerous more projects between industry, academics, and government.
Other organizations, like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), are seeing increases in funding that could go into further robotics research.
One potential downside to this will be in what selection criteria the U.S. government puts on this R&D work. The growing concern about Chinese technologies, as it pertains to the Federal Government, could limit who can participate in these funding projects. In October, the U.S. Department of Defense made its ban on Chinese drone maker DJI official. DJI is now one of several dozen Chinese companies deemed to be too closely tied to China’s military for the U.S. Government.
However, the opportunities this funding will have for the robotics industry will be huge. The recent request by some of these institutions for more SMEs to participate, especially integrators and installers of automation equipment, shows how much this additional funding will have from the lab to the factory floor.
William Sitch, chief business officer, MSA
Do you remember three years ago when the pandemic started, the workplace shut down, and the future of humanity was uncertain? It turns out that was a good time to raise money: U.S. VC investment in 2020 went up 15% over 2019. But 2021 was literally twice as nice for raising dollars – truly the golden age for starting companies!
In 2022, all that irrational exuberance came crashing down. Inflation roared, the fed raised, and the markets are blood red – the NASDAQ is down 35% at the time I’m writing this. VC funding is now back to pre-exuberance levels. Exits mostly stopped.
Amid the bad macro backdrop, robots and automation got crushed. Firms shuttered, good engineers were laid off, and lots of autonomy work product was wasted. Maybe these failed concepts were problematic, or early, or whatever, but individuals and the industry suffer when these things happen. So with a boom-bust cycle reverting us back to the mean, here are my predictions for robotics and autonomy businesses in 2023:
The macro picture just doesn’t look good. The fed will continue to raise rates and I think our current recession will continue through midyear. Layoffs to extend startup lifespan will continue. More shutdowns will happen. Some big names are teetering on the brink and will fail in 23H1. Fingers crossed for TuSimple.
AI is all the rage, AgTech is on a tear (farmland appreciated 14% from 2021), logistics automation is ROI-positive, and some failures will be the catalyst for new companies. Good ideas and bravery don’t just go away during times of pain, and there’s still money out there for raising. VC funding will be horrible in the first quarter but will accelerate through the end of the year.
Aggressive robotaxi expansion
I don’t buy the thesis that Argo’s shutdown was the end of AV. Cruise and Waymo have demonstrated product/market fit. Failures will happen, but vehicles will continue to get incrementally safer. GM says it will spend $2B on Cruise’s expansion into new markets with the purpose-built Origin. Alphabet’s Waymo One is also expanding. Zoox will launch. 2023 will be the first year robotaxis get mainstream awareness.
I just can’t with Tesla
$800B value destruction by a distracted CEO who needs a social media timeout. California, Euro- and U.S. federal and state regulators coming for Tesla FSD. Deaths attributed to driver error by last-millisecond autonomy disengagements. Traditional OEMs with positive brand equity showing up with L2+ and DMS. Headwinds for sure. Still, $18B net cash and $9B FCF in 2022 is remarkable. I’m out of my league here; I don’t know what’s going to happen and can’t make a prediction. It would be nice if they deployed radar, fused sensor data, and stopped running over mannequins.
Functionality becomes leading indicator of success
Restrictive ODDs, development during deployment and minimally-viable products that are too minimal – these things will cripple adoption, limit growth, and restrict funding. Robots that only work 95% of the time will cause companies to fail. Success will come to those who develop robust prototypes that work before mass deployment.
TL;DR I see 2023 as a second-half recovery story. I’d love to hear your feedback. Tell me how I’m wrong!
Deepu Talla, VP of embedded and edge computing, NVIDIA
Demand for intelligent robots will continue to grow: more industries embrace automation to address supply chain challenges and labor shortages. We see two key trends emerging as developing and deploying these new AI-based robots drives the need for advanced simulation technology that places them in realistic scenarios.
Millions of virtual proving grounds: photorealistic rendering and accurate physics modeling combined with the ability to simulate in parallel millions of instances of a robot on GPUs in the cloud will enable more robots to be trained and validated in virtual worlds. And generative AI techniques will make it easier to create highly realistic 3D simulation scenarios and further accelerate the adoption of simulation and synthetic data for developing more capable robots.
Expanding the horizon: the majority of robots today operate in constrained environments where there is minimal human activity. Advances in AI and edge computing will give robots multi-modal perception for better semantic understanding of their environments. Roboticists will be able to teach robots to perform increasingly complex tasks while making them faster, flexible and safer to operate in collaboration with humans in dynamic environments. This will drive increased adoption in brownfield facilities and public spaces such as hospitals, hotels, retail stores and more.
Several folks from Tangram Vision, a startup that helps robotics companies solve perception challenges, sent us there thoughts.
Brandon Minor, CEO & co-founder
ROS 2 will eclipse ROS as the platform of choice for roboticists. This is partially due to the looming deprecation of ROS, but also due to the fact that ROS 2 has seen significant development on the part of the robotics community that has made it much more tenable as a solution.
There will be a lot more consolidation in the world of autonomous vehicles. Despite a flight to more constrained ODDs, there are likely a number of AV startups that may still find themselves requiring investment. A negative narrative around AVs, coupled with ambivalent investors, will force them to sell, merge, or close their doors, unfortunately.
Julie Matheney, director of marketing
Thermal cameras will transition from an exotic sensor choice to a typical sensor choice. As a result, we’ll see them as part of the sensor array on many more robotic and autonomous vehicle platforms in 2023.
Adam Rodnitzky, COO & co-founder
We’ll see attempts to use generative tools to create robotics code like ROS nodes. These initial attempts won’t be that successful, but they’ll be the first step towards generative code finding its way into the world of robotics.
Jeremy Steward, senior perception architect
Rust uptake will increase for robotics and AV companies. The linux kernel just released a version with Rust in it, and more and more userspace libraries for working with ROS 2 over Rust are now available.
Robotics companies will be bearish on the hiring front. They will instead expect existing engineering teams to output more code with less resources.
Joel Carter, chief marketing officer, Softeq; managing partner, Softeq Venture Fund
As contract developers for some of the world’s top tech and robotics companies, Softeq views 2023 as a breakout year for robotics in the 3D internet. Metaverse applications are real and now widely available for virtual robot design, creation, programming, and testing thanks to new tools like Omniverse from NVIDIA. The platform is compatible with the popular open-source Robot Operating System (ROS) and includes a terrific physics engine explicitly tuned for industrial automation applications. We’ll also continue seeing the widespread availability of edge and cloud AI/ML algorithms to make machines even faster, smarter, and more intuitive.
Keith Pfeifer, president, Aerobotix
Increased job satisfaction and retention for humans working with robots
Especially for jobs that humans find dull, dangerous and dirty, robots will continue to lessen the burden of performing these tasks. As a result, humans will be freed to perform jobs that are more interesting, including supervising the robots.
There’s been a fear that the growing use of robots will cause more unemployment, but to the contrary, the World Economic Forum believes there will be a net positive of 12 million jobs created for humans by the year 2025.
A reduction in workplace-related injuries and diseases
The EPA recently released a new human health assessment for hexavalent chromium, which can cause cancer and is just one of the many chemical compounds that workers are often exposed to during industrial processes. Robots exposed to contaminant substances obviously can’t contract the same kinds of diseases that humans can, nor can they suffer the many injuries that humans can and do in the workplace.
Workplace-related injuries and diseases will decrease for robot-friendly companies, and both employees and employers will be better off for it.
Companies using robots will save tremendous amounts of money
While the upfront costs to install automated systems can be significant, organizations that embrace robot technology will achieve major cost savings as a result of improved labor and time efficiencies. They’ll also have a safer work environment, which means lower insurance costs and less exposure to civil or criminal liability.