Millions of jobs could be lost to robots and automation by the year 2020 as part of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution,” according to a World Economic Forum report from January.
Jobs such as manufacturing and production are expected to be affected by the rise of the machines, while a whole new line of jobs will also be created, including I.T. and data analysis. However, the net loss is expected to be around five million jobs within the next three years.
Put simply, your next CEO could be a robot.
There may be a smidgen of hyperbole in that statement, but you only have to look at some of the developments of the past twelve months to realize that robots are here to stay and they will start adversely affecting employment.
Here, we take a look back at some of the landmark moments and trends from across the robot realm in 2016.
‘You’re in a Johnny Cab’
Anyone who grew up watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall (1990) on repeat will know this scene well, as Arnie tries to escape the bad guys in a self-driving taxi.
Driver: “I’m Johnny Cab, where can I take you tonight?”
Arnie: “Drive, DRIVE!”
Driver: “Will you please repeat the destination?”
Arnie: “Oh anywhere, just go, GO!”
Driver: “Please state a street and number.”
Arnie: “Shit. SHIT!”
Driver: “I’m not familiar with that address. Would you please repeat the destination.”
Arnie then proceeds to tear Johnny Cab to shreds and control the vehicle himself.
It is fascinating looking back just 27 years to get a glimpse of how people envisaged taxis of the future would be autonomous. And we’re now pretty much there, minus the cheery mannequin-like dude in the driver’s seat.
After years of testing, trials and regulatory hurdles, we’re now seeing the first self-driving cars on the streets of a number of cities around the world.
In August, the world’s first public self-driving taxi service hit Singapore roads courtesy of NuTonomy, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup that was founded in 2013. The ultimate goal is to launch a fully commercial autonomous vehicle (AV) service in 2018, but until then NuTonomy is offering a public trial of the robo-taxi service in a small district of Singapore, with residents asked to request an invite to use its ride-hailing smartphone app.
A few weeks after NuTonomy, Uber opened a self-driving vehicle trial to the Pittsburgh public, an initiative that was later expanded to San Francisco, despite protestations from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that Uber requires a permit. And Uber also snapped up self-driving truck startup Otto.
Elsewhere, France’s Navya raised $34 million to build more self-driving shuttle buses, having already launched some vehicles on Lyon roads as part of a public transportation project. And a convoy of self-driving trucks completed a cross-Europe journey designed to demonstrate the future of transport in Europe. A myriad of additional investments and programs kicked off in the self-driving vehicle realm throughout 2016, too.
It’s early days, and petrol heads can perhaps rest easy for now, but 2016 will likely go down in history as a significant year in the evolution of autonomous vehicles.
Drone and dusted
It wasn’t just cars that took a giant step toward automation in 2016. Roles often performed by couriers on bikes, scooters, vans, and more were infiltrated by self-propelling drones.
Back in July, 7-Eleven partnered with drone delivery service Flirtey to complete what it called “the first fully autonomous drone delivery to a customer’s residence.” The duo followed up a few months later with the introduction of the first regular commercial drone delivery service in the U.S. via an ongoing trial.
In early December, London-based food delivery giant Just Eat laid claim to the “world’s first” drone-delivered meal, thanks to a partnership with Starship Technologies, an Estonia-based robotics startup created by Skype’s founders. The little six-wheeled sidewalk bot is making some deliveries in the Greenwich area of London, though it won’t fully open to every customer in the area quite yet. Still, it’s a sign of things to come.
Elsewhere, Amazon delivered its first package by drone a few weeks back, having won approval for U.K. drone delivery tests in July. The first successful Prime Air trip took just 13 minutes from order time to when the package arrived. It’s not being opened up more widely yet, but it represents a symbolic advance for automated vehicles.
United Parcel Service (UPS) partnered with drone startup CyPhy Works to trial delivering medical supplies, and successfully dispatched an asthma inhaler to a children’s summer camp on an island off the coast of Massachusetts.
Investments also highlight where the hot trends lie, and a number of drone companies received VC funding in 2016.
Drone delivery startup Zipline closed a $25 million round this year. In a nutshell, Zipline builds autonomous drones designed to deliver vaccines, blood, and medical supplies on request to health workers operating in hard-to-reach areas. In October, Rwanda launched what was widely thought to be the world’s first commercial national drone service, using Zipline, with up to 150 daily flights planned to deliver blood to 21 transfusion facilities around the country. It’s all entirely automated, using routes that are pre-programmed into the drone.
Earlier in the year, autonomous ocean drone startup Saildrone raised $14 million for its fleet of wind-powered seafaring drones that collect scientific data from the world’s oceans. And Prenav nabbed $6.5 million to develop a commercial drone system that uses computer vision to help companies inspect and maintain buildings and physical infrastructure, including roofs, cell phone towers, and other hard-to-reach places.
With all these drones carrying out complex tasks, this also generates a lot of data which companies may wish to harness. And this is why DroneDeploy raised $20 million, as it offers a platform for commercial drone operators to garner “professional-grade imagery and analysis” and 3D modeling. DroneDeploy is aimed at industries with a need to manage data captured from drones, for example agriculture, mining, construction, or insurance.
We’re just at the beginning of drones’ foray into our everyday lives, and we can likely expect a bunch more experiments and trials throughout 2017 and beyond.
Retail and health
The retail and health industries also saw some robot and automation developments last year.
A French robotics startup called Exotec raised $3.5 million to build a fleet of mobile robots that help warehouses prepare orders for delivery.
The miniature robots are targeted at logistics operators that normally rely on humans to traverse large warehouses, promising to cut employees’ daily distance covered from 15km to 4km. Exotec’s machines have already been tested with a number of companies, and its first proper robot is expected to launch in the wild in early 2017.
Ultimately, it’s all about enhancing productivity, as the robots can keep going until the cows come home.
In Pittsburgh, Bossa Nova Robotics raised $14 million to bring its robotic technology to retailers. The company develops robots that serve retailers by analyzing stock on shelves and collecting data to optimize inventory. The company is now testing its “retail robots” with “five of the world’s leading retail chains.”
Back in August, second-hand car dealer Carvana raised $160 million, partly to expand its coin-op car vending machines. Though the company offers a more traditional delivery service for those who buy cars through its website, in November 2015 Carvana opened its first coin-operated machine in Nashville — it was a five-story building filled with cars, with customers collecting their online-purchased vehicle by inserting a coin into a slot. The fully automated robotic system then delivers the car from anywhere in the building to the customer waiting outside, though there are customer service representatives on hand to help with questions.
Earlier this month, Carvana launched its second coin-op car vending machine, this time in Houston. The eight-story facility is bigger than its Nashville counterpart, and the company is planning to open more of these hubs in the future.
Robots don’t necessarily have to work solo — they can be useful tools to aid human work in a number of industries, including medicine. Cambridge Medical Robotics (CMR) is building next-gen robotic technology for minimal access surgery, and it raised $20.3 million to advance its work. Many argue that robot-assisted surgery can improve the accuracy and safety of procedures, making surgeons’ lives easier. Surgery involving robots such as Da Vinci are touted as being less invasive than those with exclusively human surgeons and can lead to quicker recovery time for patients.
Away from the physical robot world, a number of additional examples from 2016 highlight how automation will eventually encroach on nearly every facet of our lives. And yes, affect jobs, too.
In early December, Amazon launched Amazon Go, a mind-blowing brick-and-mortar grocery store in Seattle with no checkouts. Simply install the Amazon Go app, log in with your Amazon credentials, and then put goods from the shelves in your bag and walk out. The store and shelves are equipped with sensors and computer vision smarts, meaning it can detect when products are removed and returned to the shelves.
This move represents a significant advance in the offline shopping experience, though it’s limited to the company’s employees during the beta phase. Amazon Go is expected to open to the public in early 2017.
Earlier this summer, the Associated Press (AP) revealed it was expanding its baseball coverage through automated stories generated by algorithms.
The expanded robot-written sports coverage is in partnership with Automated Insights, a company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze big data and transform it into stories. The AP has worked with Automated Insights for a number of years already, generating thousands of computer-generated corporate earnings reports.
Here’s a report from a baseball game in the New York-Penn league from earlier this year — can you tell it wasn’t written by a human?
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Dylan Tice was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded with one out in the 11th inning, giving the State College Spikes a 9-8 victory over the Brooklyn Cyclones on Wednesday.
Danny Hudzina scored the game-winning run after he reached base on a sacrifice hit, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt and then went to third on an out.
Gene Cone scored on a double play in the first inning to give the Cyclones a 1-0 lead. The Spikes came back to take a 5-1 lead in the first inning when they put up five runs, including a two-run home run by Tice.
Brooklyn regained the lead 8-7 after it scored four runs in the seventh inning on a grand slam by Brandon Brosher.
State College tied the game 8-8 in the seventh when Ryan McCarvel hit an RBI single, driving in Tommy Edman.
Reliever Bob Wheatley (1-0) picked up the win after he struck out two and walked one while allowing one hit over two scoreless innings. Alejandro Castro (1-1) allowed one run and got one out in the New York-Penn League game.
Vincent Jackson doubled twice and singled, driving in two runs in the win.
State College took advantage of some erratic Brooklyn pitching, drawing a season-high nine walks in its victory.
Despite the loss, six players for Brooklyn picked up at least a pair of hits. Brosher homered and singled twice, driving home four runs and scoring a couple. The Cyclones also recorded a season-high 14 base hits.
This story was generated by Automated Insights (http://automatedinsights.com) using data from and in cooperation with MLB Advanced Media and Minor League Baseball, http://www.milb.com.
Such reports won’t soon win journalism awards, but with improving algorithms and expanded scope, we can expect to see more facets of news reporting handed over to the machines.
Rise of the machines
Countless trends from across the tech world continued from last year and onto 2016, from virtual reality and artificial intelligence to cloud computing and cybersecurity. But one of the most notable and profound developments has been the emergence of actual, physical robots in the real world, carrying out real jobs.
As the World Economic Forum report noted, this trend will inevitably lead to job losses as robots and the underlying smarts become more sophisticated and widespread. But looking at some of the examples from this year, it’s clear that automated robots can achieve things that humans simply can’t.
For every self-driving cab that cuts a human driver from the workforce, there may be a drone delivering essential medical supplies to hard-to-reach remote locations, or a robot assisting a surgeon in a complex surgical procedure. For every yin, there’s a yang; or maybe for every four yins, there may be a yang — we don’t know for sure yet.
We’re still at the very early stages of the robot revolution. While there is always apprehension during times of great societal changes, we don’t know fully how things will transpire. We don’t know what jobs will be created from the rise in automation, but early signs suggest that there will be fewer jobs.
Science fiction films are often good indicators of what’s to come as we saw with Total Recall. I just can’t wait for the “Happy Birthday Paulie” robot from Rocky 4 to become an affordable reality… over to you, SoftBank.