January 04, 2016      

Are you expecting robot butlers and flying cars — or at least self-driving ones — this year? Certain trends, such as increasing adoption of robots in logistics or smarter drones, are likely to continue in 2016.

However, the forecast is less certain for self-driving cars, doomsday machines, or robots as smart or agile as humans. Fortunately, there are lots of ways for robots and AI to improve our lives in the immediate future, and here are some predictions for robotics in 2016:

1. Productivity will continue to benefit from industrial automation.

Robots have been a fixture in factories for decades, but collaborative robots could move to smaller and midsize businesses. Robotic arms and manipulators are becoming safer, more precise, and easier to use, and some collaborative robots are going mobile.

China, the world’s biggest manufacturer, plans to intensify its level of automation, even in the face of an economic slowdown. While businesses such as Dell are trying to gain access to Chinese factories and markets, countries like Japan will also adopt robots in an effort to stay competitive.

It remains to be seen, however, how much “reshoring” will occur, even if massive unemployment from industrial automation is debatable. In fact, certain skills will be in even higher demand.

Meanwhile, 3D printing has already begun to move from prototyping to production and is starting to change how we look at construction (if not the consumer market). Partly due to labor shortages, precision welding and dairy are among the industries turning to automation — what’s next?

Could the automat return? The profit margins for fast food and retail are pretty tight, but anything that provides an edge in serving billions of meals could catch on.

Thanks to the cobots mentioned above — and the improved autonomy described below — warehousing and logistics companies will invest even more in supply chain automation to serve consumer demand for instant gratification.

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

Whether it’s a self-driving truck at a mine, an unmanned aerial vehicle inspecting a bridge, or an autonomous underwater vehicle maintaining an offshore oil rig, drones and robotic vehicles are becoming easier to operate. This frees up humans to remotely do work that’s otherwise too difficult, dangerous, or tedious to do in person.

When will self-driving cars start ferrying passengers? In closed campuses, such as at universities and airports, they already are. There are significant technical, cultural, and legal hurdles to overcome before self-driving vehicles can hit the roads. They’re not stopping major automakers and tech titans from spending a lot of money on the race to the first fully autonomous vehicle.

In logistics, Amazon’s research into drone deliveries could solve the “last-mile problem” and hasten deliveries, but again, there are safety and regulatory concerns to address.

Corporate rivalries (and in the U.S., an election year) are also factors to watch.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently permits exceptions to its ban on commercial drone use, but that scheme is likely to change with wider applications, just as the FAA finally required consumer drones to be registered.

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

Thanks to improving sensors, mobility, and the ability to gather big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) will become more important — and useful — in the coming year. From precision agriculture and warehousing to virtual assistants and medical diagnostics, smarter machines will infiltrate every facet of the global economy.

Of course, there are challenges.

Artificial intelligence research into machine learning, natural language processing, and machine vision will continue to lead to more advanced specialized robots, but that’s still a long way from “strong AI.” Elon Musk and company’s investment in OpenAI is as much a future market play as it is an attempt to restrain robots.

Ubiquitous computing and sensors raise privacy concerns, as was feared with Amazon’s Echo. Medical robots could be hacked, and the offloading of processing and data into the cloud will require a new generation of security technology. Interoperability standards are going to be an issue for environments such as hospitals and hotels using multiple robots.

Apple, Facebook, Google, and others are investing heavily in AI research. In the short term, AI will help analyze big data, manage business processes, and provide robots with autonomy.

Just don’t expect the device that handles your appointments via voice commands to be able to pick up your dry cleaning — at least not yet.

4. Robots will enter households, but not all will make it over the threshold.

Move over, Roomba. As our “Sweet Sixteen for 2016” report noted, there’s a wave of social robots getting ready to enter offices, shops, and homes. Some observers have criticized the first generation of such robots as being little more than tablets or smartphones on wheels.

Will stationary assistants such as Jibo, the FURo-i, or Amazon’s Alexa be the most useful, or will consumers prefer the more humanoid Buddy or Pepper? In a world where telecommuting and video calls already exist, how much demand is there for telepresence robots?

As last year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge demonstrated, humanoid robots are a long way from being able to easily get you a beer from the fridge or walk the dog. Expect to see market consolidation, price shifts, and increasing capabilities before there’s a robot in every home.

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

As noted above, true AI is a long ways off, according to people in the know. But a robotic arms race raises legitimate fears.

The U.S. has led in airborne drone warfare, Russia has touted its new autonomous tanks, and ethicists are fretting about accountability and the ease of remote-controlled killing. As with any weapon, restraint is good, but understanding intent and managing global conflict are more important.

On the other hand, surgical robotics, spreading exoskeletons, and cheaper and lighter prosthetics can help people right now. Bionic people are already among us, and improvements in machine vision, movement, and control help both industry and healthcare.

Like other industrial automation, precision agriculture is a response to labor shortages and the need for productivity — in this case, to feed 7.3 billion people. Autonomous machines and IoT will enable more farmers to monitor and manage crops from seed through cultivation, pest control, harvesting, and packaging.

Nearly all nations, regions, and cities worldwide are courting robotics as the key to the future, but each one will have to decide where to specialize its expertise, even as hardware commoditizes. Is it AI research? Drone training? Flexible manufacturing? Social robotics?

Not every educational contest, startup incubator, or merger and acquisition will be successful, but the robotics industry is only going to grow and be fascinating to follow in 2016!