Robotic Integration Into Our Daily Lives: Now and the Future
For many years, the idea of robots has made for compelling science fiction movies. Now, however, robotic integration is also transforming many industries—in real life.
The robot is becoming an integral part of the global economy. For decades, industries have been using fully or semi-automated machines to improve efficiency and decrease labor costs. Every day, new reports and stories come out about innovations in robotics that have the potential to change our lives. Yet, even with all of the coverage and excitement, it remains difficult to gauge the extent of robotic integration in many industries.
Robots traditionally have developed as answers to economic demands for increased efficiency in manufacturing and heavy industries. Few have questioned standardization of robots in these industries, as they have not had a direct presence in most people’s lives. Currently, robots are beginning to move far beyond the remotely felt industries into fields that affect our daily lives: our schools, our doctor’s offices, our neighborhoods and much more. Now robotic integration is raising more questions.
How are robots currently integrating into human-centered, civic industries such as education, energy, health and cities? What role might robots play in the future landscapes of these industries? What are the ethical and labor implications associated with robotic integration in these industries? How will consumers respond to the increased utilization of robots?
While the future of robots in our society is uncertain, one thing is for sure: robots will get better from here. In the following sections, we will highlight a particular disruptive robotic invention within the sectors of education, energy, health and cities, and give insight to the questions above.
Disrupted Sector: Special Education
Robots are not yet teaching our youth, but they have found a niche in the field of education. Over the past five years or so companies from the United States, to Europe and Korea, have begun to design robots to aid special education. During trials within each country, the robots’ positive effect has been noticeable amongst kids with disabilities ranging from Autism Spectrum Disorder to Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.
In 2010, Korea led the charge with robots in special education. Engkey, the robotic teaching assistant, was able to channel children’s focus on lessons and keep them on track if they began to get distracted—one of the more difficult tasks in special education. Engkey has two modes: an automated mode for playing games and reviewing lessons and a remote-operation mode for observing child-robot interaction through cameras and adjust the robot to respond to students. Although Engkey was one of the first robotic teaching aids, its production has stopped as other teaching robots entered into the market.
The more recently developed NAO and Milo robots focus on the emotional needs and comforts of special-needs children in order to foster a positive learning environment. NAO is only two feet tall – resembling more of a toy than a teaching tool – but it can greatly enhance the child’s desire to focus and interact with others. The reason for NAO’s success? It eliminates the more nuanced aspects of social interactions, such as facial expression and body language, which occur in conjunction with spoken words in normal human-to-human verbal communication. This simplification, along with other techniques to teach children to recognize specific emotions, helps children to gain confidence and bridge the gap between not socializing and talking to other people. Two of the children who participated in the British test class utilizing NAO were able to transfer to mainstream classes after continued exposure in class.
Milo, created by Boston startup Hanson Robotics, is another robot that, like NAO, helps children with disorders learn to socialize. While NAO has a plain, robotic face, Milo is made to look like a kid with spikey hair. The advantage of Milo’s human-like face is that it accentuates facial expressions and helps kids learn to recognize them. Additionally, cameras in Milo’s eyes record the children’s reactions, allowing teachers, parents and doctors to better monitor the progress and make adjustments if necessary.
The success of robots in special education is staggering. Across tests and models, children with a range of disorders experienced visible improvements in how they interacted with others and learned. Since special education is focused on social development as much as classical skill development a human presence in the classroom is not replaceable. Instead, these robots will likely continue to serve in a supplemental role to advance the programs set by educators or develop into companions for these children. In the U.S. alone, 1.5 percent of children suffer from some variant of Autism, and these robots can help to ease social students’ integration, improving both their lives and the lives of their families. But while the tools obviously are great, the price tags are less so.
Milo costs about $5,000, which is by no means a cheap budget item for many schools. However, when you take into consideration that the average annual cost to educate a child with Autism is between $17,000 to $22,000, the price tag may not seem as large. The NAO robot was originally priced at $16,000, but is now down to $7,990 (as of 2014) in order to appeal to a wider audience. Given the cost of these robots, they may not become common features in the classroom anytime soon, but if the success of these robots continues, they certainly will be in the future.
Disrupted Sector: Solar Energy
Solar energy has long struggled to compete with fossil fuels due to the high cost of solar panel production, installation and maintenance. Enter the robots.
As with the auto industry, many solar companies have automated the production of photovoltaic (PV) panels with robots that are more cost effective and precise, which has contributed to the falling price of solar energy in recent years. Still, the savings generated by robotic production alone have not been enough to create widespread availability. In order to create a competitive edge, many companies had to look to other areas to further cut costs.
Solar company Alion has developed the “Rover,” a robot that can install solar panels rows along concrete bases using only an operator and a small team to create the foundation. The robot can work continuously in the hot, sunny areas where solar panels necessarily have to be installed and reduces the cost of installation and materials by 75 percent over conventional processes. Once installation is complete, other robots take over the maintenance of the panels by moving across each row to wash away any surface material that may reduce the efficiency of the panel – a time-consuming task previously done by teams of people with hoses. This robotic maintenance technology is only improving.
In the case of individual solar panel fields—in which each is mounted on a pole—robots can increase the total production of the panel by automatically adjusting the angle of the solar panel to maximize its absorption. Two robots work on closed circuit loops to calculate the best angle for each panel and then adjust it as they arrive at each individual unit. These auto-tracking robots allow panels to produce about 35 percent more energy than fixed panels or other panel-adjustment systems.
Beyond production and installation efficiency, robotic technology is also set to solve one of the major ethical dilemmas behind solar use: hazardous water waste. Each year, solar panels across the United States produce millions of pounds of water waste from cleaning. Some companies have onsite treatment facilities—especially in major solar fields—but many newer companies and household providers go through the costly task of collecting and transporting this waste from the solar sites to treatment facilities that can be hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Recently, Israeli robotics startup Ecoppia developed and began testing new waterless, lower-energy robot cleaners that adjust cleaning schedules based on weather. Although originally designed so solar energy could be used in desert areas with limited water supplies, this technology would solve the ethical and cost issues associated with solar in developed countries by eliminating water waste. Similarly, waterless cleaning could be vitally important to rural developing nations that haven’t established an energy infrastructure.
For countries across Africa and South America in arid regions prone to loss of hydroelectric power, as well as island nations in which importing fuel is not cost effective, a solar market with prices falling over the several years looks like the answer. Robots, along with other technologies that drive down the cost and improve PV efficiency, are allowing solar technologies to break into these developing markets. However, contaminated water remains an issue for solar integration in developing countries without the necessary infrastructure or treatment facilities to properly dispose of it. By removing the need to build water treatment facilities all together, this waterless technology could aid in forming a new wave of solar-powered countries emerging in the next several decades.
But new robotic innovation is not restricted to the solar industry. Competitors in the energy field—namely, the mining, oil and gas industries—are also seeking to integrate robots to cut down on their costs as well. The spread of robots thus may not prove to be particularly beneficial to the solar industry.
Driverless trucks and trains in mines today are used to cut cost, eliminating the need to pay operators. Similarly, companies across the mining industry are looking to replace human workers at the face of the mines – where conditions hundreds of meters below ground are often extremely hot and dangerous – with robotic technology that would be remotely operated and cheaper. Above-ground drills in the mining industry have also been introduced and caught the attention of oil and gas producers.
In offshore operations in Canada, rig robots can now assemble an entire down-hole assembly system for obtaining oil at the bottom of the sea. Other welding robots have become more sophisticated and require near little help operating when making repairs. Furthermore, robotics companies are looking to fully automate the entire drilling process from the floor to retrieval. Overall, the operations of offshore rigs are becoming increasingly robot driven and will continue to do so, reducing the necessity and cost of hiring human workers.
The adoption of robots in the fossil fuel industry may slow solar integration in the near future by boosting competitors, but won’t be able to stop it. Developed countries around the world have committed themselves to renewables, with the U.S. recently devoting $4 billion in private sector funding for innovations. In emerging energy markets without established energy infrastructures solar innovations are making it more sustainable and affordable than fossil fuels. While this competition is not good for the immediate state of the solar industry, it does create a demand for disruptive solar technology and innovation to speed up integration in the coming decades.
Disrupted Sector: Hospital Care
The University of California San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay is leading the charge with increased robotic integration in its facilities. This integration is not limited to a pair of robotic arms tucked away in an operating room. A visitor walking the halls of the brand-new, $1.5 billion facility is likely to bump into one of two models of “TUG” robots. These robots, resembling high-tech janitor’s carts, operate alongside the staff and within the busy flow of the hospital. They coordinate with hospital workers by utilizing speech technology to signal their intentions and destinations.
One model is charged with the transport of medical supplies, hazardous waste, bed sheets, drugs and more—not all at the same time—to the correct locations throughout the hospital. If you question the safety of having robots transport these things, don’t worry—the manufacturers considered that, too. The robots require that the correct staff member scan a thumbprint only when the robot has arrived at the designated location, and staff members can access only the drawers with their materials. Meanwhile, the other, larger TUG model is charged with the delivery of food that patients remotely order from their rooms. This robot is able to hold up to 12 trays at once and can bring empty ones back down to the kitchen to be cleaned.
The hospital’s fleet of 25 TUG robots takes turns on duty, transporting goods around and then charging for their next shift. These robots, which can call their own elevators and open up doors, travel about 12 miles over a 24-hour period. While the TUG robots operate on the main stage in the hallways of the hospital, other robots labor behind the scenes.
Most notable is the advanced robotic system within the UCSF pharmacy, which has largely automated the entire process of prescription delivery and retrieval. After a doctor writes an electronic prescription for a patient, the robot goes to work, compiling the medications a patient needs from an organized system of barcoded drawers and loading the medications onto a ring for each patient. This eliminates much of the time consuming work of sorting the pills in the traditional hands-on process, as well as the likelihood of human error. These pharmacy robots then dispense prescriptions to the pharmacist, who often turns it back over to the TUG for delivery.
It is difficult to argue against the effectiveness of these robots at UCSF. As of May 27, the robotic pharmacy at UCSF had only committed one error when filling out a prescription—and that was due to a human mistake. As for the TUG robots, their functions streamline the entire process of the hospital by allowing nurses and doctors to focus on the well-being of their patients.
This is not to say they are without flaw, however. TUGs aren’t the fastest movers, and like a lot of technology, they are prone to getting stuck if they encounter hallway obstruction. Despite these flaws, the TUG has still managed to reduce logistical issues. A staff member of a hospital spends an average of 7 percent of his or her total work time dealing with logistical tasks such as searching for materials—but the TUG largely eliminates those tasks. While efficacy and efficiency is vitally important, especially in regard to the health of patients, the question lingers: What does this mean for human hospital workers?
The director of UCSF’s pharmacy, Rita Jew, says that the $15 million robotic system did not replace anyone already employed at the medical center. However, it did come in lieu of new hires. Similarly, for the TUG robots, the implementation has supplemented the role of existing medical personnel and freed up money for the hospital to divert toward improvements in care and salary increases for employees, which otherwise would have gone to new hires.
The success of the robots in the UCSF medical center may open the door for robotic startups to integrate some technologies into hospitals in the near future.
Cities & Transportation
Disrupted Sector: Automobiles
The self-driving car is perhaps the most well-reported and in turn, well-known, disruptive robotic technology today. Some of the world’s biggest tech companies including Google, Tesla and Uber all are working to develop this technology.
A main concern surrounding the self-operating automobile is vehicle safety: is the technology good enough to be safe on the road? According to the industry leader, Google, the answer is pretty much yes.
Those who live around Silicon Valley may have seen one of these cars driving around—or may even have gotten into an accident with one, in which case, you should be more careful. In the monthly updates on the performance of self-driving vehicles, Google has reported that human drivers have caused all 12 accidents in which these cars have been involved, although no serious injuries occurred. Given the positive track record of Google’s self-driving cars in California—having driven over 1 million miles in autonomous mode—other places are looking to begin testing as well.
Virginia has announced plans to allow testing of autonomous vehicles in certain sections of northern highways, pending initial safety trials. The state hopes that the technology could reduce the severity of congestion on these high-traffic roads. Virginia joins California, Michigan, Florida, and Nevada as the fifth state—along Washington D.C. and other cities—to allow testing of autonomous vehicles on roads alongside human drivers. In still more places in the United States and abroad, companies are looking to integrate driverless technology on and off of the main roads.
Driverless technology companies are targeting every area they can, both public and private. Pilot projects of autonomous vehicles are planned to roll out in 30 American cities, as well as in the United Kingdom, by the end of 2016. Everything from city buses to airport baggage tows, army bases to theme parks, is being explored as a possible market.
Does this all mean we can kick back and relax in the driver’s seat soon? Possibly, but there are also some other considerations.
While much of the testing is being done on highways, cities and urban areas will experience the most profound changes from autonomous vehicles. The landscape of city transportation has drastically changed over the last several years. On average, individually owned cars are utilized less than 4 percent of a given year and are a costly investment given this usage. Growing alternative transportation options, such as public bicycles and ride-sharing services like Uber, are already undermining the logic of car ownership within cities, and some expect the introduction of autonomous vehicles to reinforce this.
Research from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in Portugal found that the introduction of automated “taxibots” into the city of Lisbon could reduce the number of cars in the city by 90 percent. This would not only reduce the amount of air pollution caused by automobiles, but also free up a massive amount of space in the city (up to 20 percent of the curb-to-curb area) that is currently used for parking.
Increased safety of these vehicles devoid of human error, which are the cause of so many accidents, could also free up space by allowing cars to travel closer to one another, in turn permitting cities to devote less total area to streets.
However, not everyone predicts such positive outcomes, as autonomous vehicles become the standard. While autonomous cars are predicted to be more efficient than the existing models of widespread self-ownership, some argue that this outcome is still not as good as alternatives. Self-driving cars may be relatively more efficient, but walking and riding bicycles—which is making comeback with programs such as City Bikes—remain much more sustainable. Moreover, if the goal is to make cities more efficient, it will take policy and planning on the part of government and city developers to ensure this end.
In addition, cities are valued because they foster an increased exchange of ideas and knowledge amongst people in close proximity that promotes societal advancement—otherwise known as human capital. This explains why most great advancements in human history were born within urban centers. Smart city planners argue that increased car congestion in cities over the past half-century has negatively impacted human capital by reducing human interaction—and self-driving cars may increase this trend. One of the major ways that cars served to decrease human capital is by diminishing the spontaneous interactions that occur on the sidewalks, in metros, and outside restaurants near office places when people travel in the controlled confines of a car. These types of spontaneous interactions are much more likely to occur when people are within walking or biking distance to one another.
Finally, we must address the question of who will own these vehicles. Many of the companies developing the technology claim that they should be considered the owners of both the software and the cars themselves, and consumers would simply license the product. Their argument is that private ownership would allow an individual to change the software, thereby decreasing the safety of the vehicle.
However, to many people this raises concern over centralization and market domination by companies that are developing this technology. This trend in not unfamiliar, it already happened with Apple’s IOS and Google’s Android in the smartphone market – an industry which has had its own software ownership disputes in the past half decade. Whereas centralization of smartphone technology disruption allowed existing carriers to adapt to new demands and sell the technology, centralization of self-driving cars could affect all aspects of the automobile industry from dealerships to insurance companies, transportation services to repair shops.
Last month, major vehicle manufacturers, such as John Deere and General Motors submitted their arguments for owning the vehicle software during a U.S. Copyright Office hearing. The USCO’s ruling has not yet been released, but the verdict could shape the next several decades of the automobile industry, social norms and our sense of ownership.
Robotic development and integration is revolutionizing industries that impact our health, safety and other important areas —and the robots described above are just the beginning. Robots are increasingly aiding and integrating into roles where we once relied solely on human operators. As companies continue to refine the technology and make breakthroughs, the role of the automated worker is likely to expand. To many, this is cause for excitement; others are much more skeptical. Regardless, it is not a black and white argument. Going forward, we have to recognize both the advantages and potential problems associated with robotic expansion into regulated industries.
The Engkey, Milo, and NAO robots have opened up the pathway for innovation in the field of special education robots. Over the past several years, new robotics startups have emerged in response to the success robots have had in this field. These companies, such as Leka, the 2014 Robot Launch grand winner, are just now breaking into the market and increasing competition in the field. As more robots are created, they may become more than simply classroom tools, but robotic companions that can help children with disorders reduce day-to-day anxiety and over stimulation. While the field is still new and the research is still being conducted, all early signs point to widespread robotic integration in the future.
Unlike special education, solar technology has been around for decades, but only in the past few years has it become competitive as costs fell and efficiency rose. The recent announcement from the White House of $4 billion from the private sector to be allocated towards renewable energy innovation shows a conscious commitment from global leaders to transition from fossil fuels in the wake of the falling price of PV cells. However, this will not happen immediately and gas, oil, and mining industries are innovating themselves to remain relevant for as long as possible. Robotic innovations in the solar industry are going to play an important role in speeding the transition to a solar future. Waterless panel-cleaning robots could reduce water waste, allowing solar to exist in some of the most arid and sunny regions on earth—deserts—and giving more people access to electricity in an environmentally sustainable way.
The need for precision and coordination in healthcare lends itself to automation. Innovations like the robotic pharmacy and TUG robots that can eliminate human error and free up time for hospital staff to focus on the care of their patients lead to better patient outcomes. Although these robots have not replaced anyone currently employed, they are supplanting the potential for new hires. One way to look at this is negative; the hospital employs fewer people. Another way is more positive; the hospital has more money to improve its patient-care function. No matter your view, robots are set to change the dynamics of the hospital environment in decades to come, as human jobs become more specifically tailored and efficiently directed to patient care.
Driverless cars are going to have a great impact on daily life in the coming years, but it is still difficult to determine exactly how. The benefit of fewer crashes is apparent, but these cars will affect every aspect of the automobile industry and may very well construct new social norms: encouraging sprawl outside cities, decreasing social capital, and changing our idea of ownership in a robotic world. As Google hopes to release their first driverless car to the public between 2017 and 2020, there are still many questions surrounding these robots—questions that will likely only be answered after autonomous vehicles are introduced on the roads.
So where is this technology—now integrated into our daily lives—going to lead us?
Many people, including those developing disruptive robotics technologies, argue that innovations in robotics will revolutionize standards in these industries. In the next couple of decades, robots will be incorporated into more aspects of economic activity—to boost productivity, drive down production costs, and foster accessibility for consumers. Yet to others, this progress raises concerns. Many worry particularly about unemployment. As robots become more efficient than their human counterparts at completing tasks, will they replace humans in large segments of the workforce?
Often, however, the robot revolution seems so distant that there is not yet even reason for concern. Although technologies such as automatic welders in the auto industry have already replaced people, many, if not most, technical jobs still require human acuity to perform. Proponents of this line of thinking recognize that robotic technology is undeniably advancing, but believe it is doing so at a rate that won’t lead to major changes in many industries in the foreseeable future. You need only look at the recent contest held by Amazon in which robots were assigned to select the correct item and place it into a bin—simulating the job currently performed by warehouse workers. The robots largely worked at a snail’s pace with jerky movements—nothing that would incite fear of job loss for a warehouse worker, despite the excitement of the engineers competing.
Every major leap in technology is accompanied by individuals who predict massive replacement of the human workforce. Take the example of the tractor. Many predicted a massive loss of agricultural jobs upon its introduction; while this did happen, a vast amount of new jobs appeared as food production and harvesting rates expanded. In these instances, individuals lost jobs, but society as a whole benefitted. Are robots simply the next tractor—reducing jobs in one sector, only to produce innovation and prosperity elsewhere?
This debate over the future of labor in the economy as a whole after robotic integration headlines a host of ethical concerns surrounding robots, varying from industry to industry. While ethics is an important consideration in any innovative idea, concerns raised over the potential for robots to violated the currently established ethics may be unfounded. Our ethical standards are constantly changing over time and it may be that robotic introduction into our daily lives will form entirely new set of ethics from the one we have today.
The potential outcomes of robot integration are certainly debatable and indeterminate. Robotic innovations in one industry may drastically advance the functionality of robots in another. Breakthroughs that we expect to come quickly, such as widespread driverless cars, may take decades to come, while other completely unexpected robotic applications could surface in the next couple of years. The thing we can be sure of is this: they’re here, and they will only get more sophisticated.