December 28, 2016      

Back in January, I made five 2016 robots predictions. How accurate were they? From industrial automation and artificial intelligence to household robots, I expected that technology would advance and adoption would continue in multiple industries — nothing too dramatic.

Sure, the controversy around self-driving cars has continued, and automation is changing the entire supply chain, from manufacturing and warehousing to e-commerce fulfillment and last-mile deliveries. But what about consumer robots and AI stealing jobs?

Let’s take a look at whether my crystal ball worked.

1. Productivity will continue to benefit from industrial automation.

OK, this was a pretty safe prediction.

China has surpassed Japan in being the world’s largest purchaser and operator of industrial robots, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Since it is starting with a lower-than-average robot density, the nation has a ways to go to catch up with other countries.

To that end, robotics purchases by Chinese businesses are expected to more than double by 2018, and Chinese investors are aggressively looking for foreign partners.

Productivity might be good for a manufacturer’s bottom line, but it can also hurt workers’ wallets, especially since China is more willing than other countries to endure job displacements from automation. As many as 60,000 people were reportedly replaced by robots at Samsung supplier Foxconn.

On the collaborative robot side, increasing adoption has lifted the fortunes of suppliers such as Universal Robots, according to Goldman Sachs.

2. Robots on land, in the air, and on (and under) the seas will be more autonomous.

Manufacturing and logistics continued to be the biggest adopters of robots in 2016, and several vendors have been rolling new automated guided vehicles (AGVs) into factories and warehouses, including Seegrid, Clearpath Robotics, and Locus Robotics.

Boeing, Liquid Robotics Team Up on Maritime Drones

Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider autonomous vehicle.

In the water, Boeing recently bought Liquid Robotics for an undisclosed amount, certainly a major endorsement for this 2015 Game Changer on our annual RBR50 list of the leading robotics companies. Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider is designed to be useful for the security, oceanography, and the oil and gas industries.

Straddling water and land is Clearpath’s Warthog, which could lead to a whole range of amphibious applications.

In the air, we’ve seen drones be used for precision agriculture, painting ship hulls, and yes, delivering packages. While the 2016 robots consumer market has slowed, the commercial market has become that much more competitive.

And, of course, all the major automakers and big tech firms are testing self-driving cars. Tesla may be logging the most hours, but its driver-assist technology was involved in a fatality. Google, which has stated the ambitious goal of having a car in the next few years, has partnered with Ford and Honda and spun off its Waymo unit.

While the legal, safety, and cultural challenges remain, another area where autonomous vehicle technology is advancing is with delivery fleets. Uber and Volvo teamed up for the Otto truck, which delivered a trailer full of beer in October. Can Amazon, UPS, or Pizza Hut be far behind?

3. We’ll find new applications for AI and robotics.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are already making financial and healthcare more efficient, and lawyers, real estate agents, and outsourcers should be watching these developments.

Much of the research into AI is being driven by the need for self-driving vehicles and robots to quickly assess their environments and respond in real time. Also, voice interfaces, the emerging industrial Internet of Things, and the drive toward a general-purpose robot are contributing to interest and funding in AI and deep learning.

4. In 2016 robots will enter households, but not all will make it over the threshold.

Making Room for a Home Robot? They're Coming!

Pepper at the opening of Tokyo’s International Film Festival.

Amazon’s Alexa, iRobot’s Roomba, and Google Home are certainly visible, but most of the other consumer models we listed in our “Sweet Sixteen for 2016” report or saw at January’s Consumer Electronics Show aren’t yet available.

Jibo has been repeatedly delayed, Blue Frog Robotics’ Buddy is just beginning to ship, and SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper is spreading in commercial use. Boston Dynamics’ MiniSpot (pictured above) is a cool, if somewhat unsettling, prototype.

That’s not to say that robots for folding your laundry, mowing your lawn, or teaching your children aren’t proliferating, but you were still far more likely to encounter social and service robots in 2016 in public spaces such as schools, hospitals, or shopping malls.

More on 2016 Robots and Strategy:

5. The robot apocalypse won’t happen, but robots will help people worldwide.

While Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned about the rise of AI, and some of the news media continues to trumpet the “robopocalypse,” this article was written by a human being for other human beings.

Yes, the threat of employment disruptions is real — see the Foxconn example above — but the bigger challenge is retraining blue-collar workers and relieving a shortage of people with in-demand engineering skills. Every robotics executive I spoke with this year is hiring, and cobots still need humans to work alongside and manage them.

Russian Military Unveils T-14 Armata Semi-Autonomous Tank

Russian T-14 Armata tanks have autonomous capabilities.

It’s certainly possible that autonomous military systems could be part of a new arms race involving the U.S. (still the world’s largest arms supplier), Russia, and China — not to mention other powers such as Israel or India. But we have more to fear right now from weaponized drones, persistent or escalating conflicts among humans, and civil unrest than from AI run amuck or robot overlords.

Regardless of one’s politics, the robotics industry should take responsibility for addressing economic challenges, just as local and national governments need to prepare for the inevitable changes resulting from robotics adoption.

It’s not all doom and gloom for 2016 robots. The robotics industry is still growing nicely, and outgoing President Obama demonstrated that the U.S. government is aware of the challenges around AI research and development.

Not only can drones deliver medicine or help locate victims of natural disasters, but surgical robots also promise to become more flexible, and social robots are finding therapeutic uses. Teams worldwide are working hard to develop assitive robots for aging populations.

What do you think? Was I too optimistic about the 2016 robots, or is the robotics market still too immature to judge?

I’ll post my robotics predictions for 2017 soon, but share your own forecast with us!