There’s a lot of talk about the coming disruption of the Robot Age.
But the thing is, robots are here. They’ve been here for a while now, even though most of us don’t see them on a day to day basis. Finding them may be easier than just looking at an auto production line, which is the standard media example of robotics in action.
However, that’s the standard because automation is at the heart of robotics, so a “robot” might not be a machine that looks somewhat human. It may be a complicated machine that can replace what humans have been doing.
For example, I recently wrote a couple articles on the transition of dangerous manual labor in the oil and coal industries. Basically, automation is taking over the jobs that used to be the domain of brave workers risking life and limb in a mine or on a rig.
For the companies, they now have invested in technologies rather than personnel and those technologies operate rain or shine, with no attitudes and no sick days. These new technologies are essentially robots.
Amazon.com’s warehouses are also full of robots doing a complex dance among all the products filling orders and getting them to our door within a day or two after placing the order.
The military has been using umanned vehicles in the air, land and sea for more than a decade now. And these machines are getting to the point where they are becoming fully autonomous, able to change course or altitude depending upon the conditions they encounter.
So, yes it’s the Robot Age.
But underneath the robotics is what’s most important — the brain.
How these robots carry out their duties is far more important than what they do, in the end. The brains of these machines are what make them valuable and important.
Many years ago, I was talking to a friend about the growing demand in the U.S. military for unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). I was looking at iRobot, a company that is better known for its household robotic vacuums, pool cleaners and gutter cleaners.
It had begun building UGVs and I thought this would be an interesting play on the sector since it a focused player. A colleague of mine then told me his father, a physics professor at a major university, knew one of the founders. And then he said, “The thing that really makes these unique isn’t their build but their programming.”
That was my “Aha!” moment. How to program these robots to figure things out on the fly was what set them apart. And that hasn’t changed.
What has changed however, is that processing power has increased significantly so these machines can now process much more information, much more quickly.
This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. Building a self-aware machine has long been a theme of science fiction. But now it’s much closer to science fact.
Computers can now read, talk, play games, give directions (and adapt those directions if you miss your turn) and recognize people by their voices.
I got a Google Assistant for Christmas. I usually use it as a timer, or to check the weather or settle some disputed trivia among family members. But it has other more complex tools as well. I can ask it what my day looks like and it will assimilate information from a number of different places to tell me about the weather, my schedule, traffic, curated news, etc.
And now, Google has just upgraded the Assistant’s brain to recognize different voices and match them to separate accounts. Nowadays that doesn’t sound too earth shattering… but given this is a $100 device, that kind of technology is pretty stunning.
AI is what is powering the Robot Age. It behind driverless cars and the Internet of Things (IoT). IBM is using its AI, Watson to do taxes for H&R Block customers. It’s not coming, it’s here.
How to play AI
Your best choices for getting a toe — or foot — into this water is to stick with the big players that are making it happen at the fundamental levels.
For example, Intel missed the big move to mobile, but it’s redoubled its efforts in AI and the Internet of Things. It has the advantage of being able to deploy huge amounts of chips that are reliable and state of the art. Smaller players may have more interesting designs or abilities but they can’t scale up as reliably, so they will have trouble finding enough customers to grow.
No doubt some will succeed, but Intel won’t be left begging. And it’s already making a very successful transition out of the desktop and traditional server markets and into the new sectors.
On the implementation side, look to Amazon. It has its hands in just about everything at this point, but automation is at the foundation of its business. AI is going to be a key factor in taking this efficiency to the next level.
And if you’re still looking for a smaller company that may have some leverage growth, look at iRobot or AeroVironment. Both have been pioneers of the Robot Age and have deep and loyal roots on the military and homeland security side of things. As border security becomes a bigger issue these firms will be winners.