Our modern word “robot” comes from the play “Rossum’s Universal Robots” by Karel Capek, from approximately 1920. The word appeared as “robota” from the Czech word loosely translated as “servant” or “forced labor, compulsory service, drudgery”. As a friend of mine from Eastern Europe put it, it could be rendered as “worky”.
Our notion of the robot is a machine that performs the repetitive tasks associated with high volume manufacturing so that humans can be spared the “drudgery” and often, the risk of injury, associated with production. A noble ideal, but one that has been elusive to the industrial world for decades because of the huge cost and complexity of the technology. Unlike the amiable “Robby” in Forbidden Planet (1956), the notion of a machine that would free mankind from work has been exclusively the province of science fiction. Emphasis on the word fiction.
The robot revolution has been slow to emerge, but since the early days of Unimation in the 1960’s, robots have been increasingly performing dangerous manufacturing tasks more accurately and repeatably than humans can. This trend has continued to the present influenced by declining cost brought on by the semiconductor age. Based on the incredibly low cost of “intelligence” and “control” made possible by embedded processors and modern power electronics, the robots of the 2010 era are orders of magnitude smaller and smarter than their early cousins of 50 years ago.
Due to a variety of technical improvements robots are now being rated as “safe” to work in proximity with humans. This feature is a major turning point in the advancement of the technology. Massive guarding cells and floor space allocations are no longer required. In addition, costs for flexible robots are well below $40K for several products and return on investment is less than 1 year in many applications. Falling prices, increased safety and easy to use software and commissioning will continue to drive increased use of robots and competition among suppliers in the coming decades.
What are the implications of this new level of cost/performance? One fact that is becoming well documented is the ability to reduce costs in many products. The productivity of the robot is often higher than a human counterpart. That part is a little scary to some people. For the most part it means that many producers will be able to hold their costs down in the face of declining costs for goods imported from low cost of labor countries. Will this upset labor markets? Hard to say. To the extent that the size of the workforce is not growing in many countries, it is less of an issue. Skilled human labor that is more focused on product quality and maintaining the manufacturing infrastructure are potential benefits.
The biggest area of future impact forecast by the robot industry is service robots. A bar tending robot today is a novelty that is not terribly difficult, but there are folks working on robots that can help patients in the healthcare industry as the next big thing for the industry.
The stuff of science fiction movies like “AI” and “I Robot” may be nearer than you think.