Science fiction vs. reality: A robotics industry overview

Robots have made their way into industrial, manufacturing and military settings, but the robots of science fiction remain a long-term goal rather than a reality.

Some of the robots in movies and television are friendly and useful, like C-3PO or R2-D2, but others like RoboCop or the Terminator -- not so much. Regardless of their nature, we've expected that, by now, robots would have shown up in our daily lives, both at work and in our homes.

Yet, in 2020, other than a few vacuuming robots, it is a rare occurrence to interact with a robot on a daily basis. Many people thought that it would be inevitable that robots would exist in our homes and workplaces, but the gap between the expectations created by the science fiction realm and reality remains quite large.

Robot use cases

Today, the best chance of interacting with a robot is in industrial, manufacturing and military settings. Robots are highly desired in many industries, especially to perform tasks often referred to as the four D's: dirty, dangerous, dear (or expensive) and dull (or demeaning).

Indeed, manufacturing robots have been used for decades, putting together cars and working on other types of assembly-related tasks. Another popular use of robots is in the healthcare industry. Robot surgeons are used to assist with complex surgeries and procedures, enabling surgeons to work on delicate procedures that would normally have to be more invasive if completed solely by a human.

There is also much use of robotics by the military and law enforcement through mostly human controlled devices that are able to interact with targets from control stations set up around the world.

These types of robots provide significant value and perform important tasks, but these are not the ones that come to mind when we think of the robots from science fiction. Indeed, to make industrial robots work in a reliable way without causing physical harm to humans, they often must be separated from physical human contact. Fortunately, the development of AI, powerful sensors and technology such as cloud computing are all leading to advancements in robotics and hope to change this dynamic.

The term robots has also been used to refer to automated software activities. Robotic process automation (RPA) is the idea of taking a piece of software and automating tasks on a computer. RPA then emulates what a human does in the software, enabling it to complete automation of a task or multiple tasks. An RPA implementation is able to act similarly to how a human would interact with the software without needing to be integrated into the software previously. While there is no doubt RPA is providing significant value and interest, it is confusing in many respects to use the term robotics in this context.

Robot industry evolution

Over the past decades, several companies have emerged to make the vision of robots we can interact with in our daily lives a reality. One of the more recognizable, iRobot, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The company pioneered the concept of vacuum bots and has since expanded into other areas, including lawn care and home cleaning and maintenance. In the past few years, additional companies have rushed into the home robotics market and offered an increased range of options in the space.

In the past decade, collaborative robots, or cobots, were developed to operate in close proximity to humans to perform various tasks. Cobots are intentionally built to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace, and while this term may appear new, they aren't a new technology.

Instead of replacing humans with autonomous counterparts, cobots augment and enhance human capabilities with super strength, precision and data capabilities so that they can do more and provide more value to the organization. Cobots are also trained differently than traditional industrial robots. Rather than being programmed to a specific set of steps using programming tools, many cobots are trained by humans manipulating the arms and training by example. Pioneered by robotics company Kuka and further developed by Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics, cobots have increased their footprint in industrial settings, both large and small.

Challenges with robots at home and in the office

However, all this development isn't without major challenges. In 2018, cobot developer Rethink Robotics was unable to raise funds and had to close its doors. Likewise, social robot startup Anki officially closed its doors in March 2019 after a fairly successful run. Anki's main product, Cozmo, was a robotic friend and coding education tool that was quite popular, and in 2017, it was among the top sellers in Amazon's toy section. In 2018, home robotics company Jibo also shut down, despite having raised over $73 million in venture capital (VC) investment.

All of these failures reinforce a common theme: Robots are expensive to develop, manufacture and sell, and the consumer market is not supporting these companies at levels necessary to give investors continued confidence. Cost is a serious inhibitor to having robots in the home. Parts, programming and the need for delicate shipping have always been a major deterrent to having robots in the average home.

For example, a robotic vacuum can cost over $1,000 if you want to have one that has a decent battery life and mopping capabilities. Many robotics companies that have failed have released robots that were more of a novelty than useful around the home. This removes most incentive for an average person to make the purchase, especially considering the price.

In addition, current household robot designs are purpose-built. Robots must be built with specific tools, locomotion devices and sensors in order to carry out those tasks. This is different from our science fiction expectations of robots, such as the maid robot Rosie from The Jetsons. Today's average robot would have a hard time opening a fridge or chopping and preparing food for you. This makes single-/specific-use robots a harder sell to the typical household.

Are robots in our daily lives ever going to happen?

You may be left wondering whether robots will ever come to your home and office to help with your everyday tasks. At the moment, we don't expect to see a robot that is capable of carrying out many tasks coming to your home in the immediate future. However, down the road, it is most definitely a possibility, but it seems that the VC community doesn't currently have an appetite to invest in these types of companies.

There are an increasing number of small-scale applications of robots in use around the world today, with automated pool cleaners and vacuum cleaners becoming more common as the prices start to decrease. This shows great promise for the future of robotics. Lower cost of parts, better manufacturing processes, increased interest and other driving factors have led to some of those science fiction robots becoming more attainable. As these trends continue, it is likely we will start to see a greater number of robots in our daily lives.

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