2015: Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto?

industrial robot exampleWill each of us have a personal robot in our future? I think so, and much sooner than expected.

No, I’m not talking about personal care robots like the Japanese have or as depicted in Robot and Frank. I’m thinking industrial robots – one for every household.

Several reasons come to mind:

  • I was reading an interesting article on BioTech which pointed out that robots can make genetic testing much faster and more precise. This need for a large labor force and ultra-high precision is perfect for robots.
  • Likewise, baby boomers are aging/retiring, with less people to fill the vacancies. In a way, that won’t be a problem (after all, technology has already removed quite a few jobs that required labor in the 80s and 90s), but it still means there needs to be more labor with less of a labor pool to draw from. Enter robots.
  • According to reliable estimates, the days of cheap overseas labor are dwindling as countries like India and China have to pay their workers more. Manufacturing jobs that were overseas will start coming back (as they are already in Mexico) – but the labor that knows how to run the plants is no longer around to run them. Robots again.

This last example is already visible in one place – Tesla Motors. Running out of an old plant used by General Motors and Toyota, it is many, many robots doing the work, with few humans in comparison. Since it was a new shop, there were no labor agreements to carry forward or honor, no ‘human costs’ for the machines (health care, vacation pay, office/locker space, etc) and costs involved were the initial expenditure for the machines, and (presumably low cost) maintenance. It allows them to be competitive with a somewhat radical product, an electric car.

Likewise, as labor jobs move back, using robots can open the doors to more production with less people. So what prevents North America from moving to a robot economy?

Obviously, we need more robot manufacturing companies (ironically, a company that would benefit most – and first – from its own product, delaying use for others). Then we need a way to get over the high cost of ownership.

One option is leasing/renting. If each person/group owned an industrial robot and rented it out, there’s many benefits economy wise. Amazon already does this with people in Mechanical Turk, where people’s brain power can be applied to problems just like cogs in a machine. So why not a clearing house for robot labor?

And the economic benefits:

  • Companies form faster and get productive faster without the large initial capital outlay for machinery (or labor).
  • Individuals have a business that doesn’t profit from their personal (manual) labor – labor that will be in shorter supply as they age.
  • Selling/leasing to individuals spreads out the risk, both to themselves and the manufacturer.
  • The manufacturer can have reduced advertising – after all, the robot leasers have a vested interest in promoting their devices.
  • It provides income to many people looking for an extra source of money in this economy.

Or use the robots directly – how many garage-level ideas would go ahead if you had access to a personal industrial robot to put things together 24/7? Would Apple Computers have grown faster if everyone in that garage had a personal robot placing circuits on boards? So people might even rent a robot for personal business – and boost the economy that way.

Is this a bizarre concept? No. Think back to your youth – how many of you argued to your parents that your first car would enhance your life, for example making it easier to get to work (or even for work, such as a delivery driver)? And it did – in effect, a personal mechanical device increased your earning potential. A car-based economy is accepted without question today, but there was a time when a personal car was as odd a notion as a personal robot is now. I believe that if that option becomes available, people will go for it, and quickly.

Of course, robots without brains are useless, so what about programming for these robots? Not a problem. Code to perform tasks will become readily available – look at Thingiverse as an example of what people will give away when the tools (3D printers) are interesting. Expect robot juggling for example code right away, perhaps followed by sign language, and more.

But along with that there’ll be a cottage industry formed around code for specific tasks, such as optimized spray painting of objects, or generic part placement for circuit boards. Much of the code will be free, with fees collected for customizing if you won’t (or can’t) rework it yourself – such as adapting general part picking for a specific circuit board for your product, or spray painting a specially shaped object.

More than likely, a situation like this will happen when a single company works out profitable financials to build a robot, lease it to an individual or family, and then make the connection to companies that need to lease it (leasing makes more sense since the robots will require maintenance). Mechanical Turk is a good example of how this can be organized today.

As for me, I’m already adding ‘personal industrial robot’ to my list of projects in the next year…

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