RoboBusiness 2018 Day 1 Highlights: AI, Investment, and International Challenges

North American robotics is growing strongly. Source: IFR, RIA, Doug Olson

September 27, 2018      

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The robotics ecosystem converged here yesterday at RoboBusiness 2018 to share ideas, understand advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, and tout the growth of technology that is disrupting existing markets and creating new ones.

From the keynote addresses to the 4th Annual C. Walton Musser Industry Reception, Robotics Business Review was there for the opening of the two-and-a-half-day event in Silicon Valley. (Robotics Business Review produces RoboBusiness.)

We spoke with developers, venture capitalists, and buyers of automation, and here are some highlights from Day 1 of the conference.

AI is key to the next generation of robotics

“Moore’s Law has come screeching to a halt,” said Deepu Talla, vice president and general manager of autonomous machines at NVIDIA Corp., in the opening keynote.

Fortunately, advances in graphical processing units (GPUs) have helped jump-start the development of artificial intelligence, he said. Machine learning and deep learning processes that used to take weeks or months now take hours or days to complete.

RoboBusiness 2018 keynote address

Keynote speaker Deepu Talla showed examples of AI in robotics.

Talla mentioned recent deployments of AI in optical inspection, last-mile delivery, inventory management, infrastructure inspection by drones, and logistics.

“Advances in robotics cannot happen without advances in AI,” said Rob High, vice president and chief technology officer at IBM Watson, during another keynote. “AI can provide insights and inspiration.”

However, major challenges include identifying where the greatest value is for applying analytics and AI, as well as developing the technology to engage users, he said.

It’s unclear whether the robotics industry will mimic the growth of PCs and smartphones, where competing platforms or operating systems helped shape the market, said Doug Olson, president and CEO of Harmonic Drive LLC.

“Social robots will need to know the difference between a human lying on the floor watching a football game and one having a heart attack,” he said.

Looking for the next big thing at RoboBusiness 2018

In addition to the crowded Expo Hall, with more than 70 exhibitors ranging from established components and solution providers to university spinoffs, startups, and 2018 RBR50 winners, a number of sessions looked at investment trends.

In a panel titled “Follow the Money: Where are Robotics and AI Investors Placing Their Bets?” venture capitalists and engineers discussed industries where automation use is growing.

Examples of markets that are adopting (and changing) robots include agriculture, construction, and law enforcement.

In addition, several RoboBusiness 2018 speakers and attendees described food preparation as a hot area to watch.

Instead of replacing human workers in food service, perhaps companies should think about locations where a robot could be used to create a new market need, said Eric Daimler, founder and CEO of SpinGlass. He suggested that a robot that could make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a truck stop or rest stop would be better than replacing a human at a sandwich shop.

“I don’t go into a Subway and say, ‘I wish a robot would make this,'” Daimler said. “I do go to places where I say, ‘I wish I had a fresh sandwich.'”

Policy and perception

While robot manipulation, mobility, and manipulation are improving, some of the biggest challenges — and opportunities — facing the automation industry are in dealing with public perception, agreed several speakers at RoboBusiness 2018.

U.S. unemployment is at historic lows, even as robotics adoption has increased in small and midsize enterprises, thanks in part to collaborative robots or cobots, noted Olson. Many industries face labor shortages, despite media reports of automation threatening jobs.

“The adoption of technology is a burden when you’re short-handed,” Daimler said. Retraining is key, said several experts.

“I’m not saying whether robots will take jobs or create jobs,” said RBR contributor and geopolitical futurist Abishur Prakash. “But I am saying that governments around the world believe that robots will take jobs and create policies that could affect your businesses.”

He cited examples such as bans of delivery robots in San Francisco and of self-driving cars in India, the use of AI for screening immigrants in New Zealand and Canada, and China’s limitation of mapping of its roads (needed for autonomous vehicle development) to domestic companies.

International opportunities

Speaking of the global automation market, RoboBusiness 2018 demonstrated the strength of multinational partnerships in the face of rising trade tensions. During networking breaks and scheduled VC meetings, investors, startups, and established companies made deals.

In a panel about challenges and perspectives in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, speakers and the audience touched on the diversity of global robotics. Georg Stieler, managing director, Asia, at STM Stieler, provided an overview of robotics production and adoption in Europe and China.

He noted that while China represents a huge market for automation, it’s not as advanced as other countries and faces investment and intellectual property concerns. Europe produces excellent research and industrial robots, Stieler said, but its market is fragmented and has stringent regulatory requirements.

RoboBusiness 2018 logo with tag

At the same time, it’s up to the industry to maximize innovation while acknowledging the need for regulation and safety litigation, said Anthony Quinn, a senior standards advisor at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

With only four North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes describing robotics, compared with nine for aprons, the U.S. needs human-derived data, observed Jason Schenker, chairman of the Futurist Institute and president of Prestige Economics. The NAICS data is feed into quarterly gross domestic product forecasts by the federal government.

Schenker described the Robot Activity Index, which is the result of brief polls of robotics executives conducted with Robotics Business Review.

More coverage of RoboBusiness 2018, including this year’s Pitchfire startup competition winner, will be coming soon.