Robotics Will Never Stop Amusing!

By Sachin Mahajan, Director, Telus

Industrial robots have been in use for decades, helping increase production & efficiency without the use of human assistance. “Automation” was the buzz word, and all of us have heard tall tales of Japanese companies mastering the art. They were great for jobs which were repetitive, needed low unit cost and were fast.In fact, robotics and process improvement were touted as the primary reason for Toyota & Hondas of the world outdoing their American counterparts for better part of the 20th century.

However, majority of the industrial robots being used had limited intelligence, were built for specific tasks and often were dangerous for humans working in close proximity.  And if you were brought up on a staple of diet of commercial Hollywood films, like yours truly, the very mention of “Robots” conjures up images of Arnold Schwarzenegger in and as “Terminator”; acting and emoting very human like. Was it a pipe dream or were intelligent robots a tangible reality in the not so distant future?

As I tackled that question, you can imagine my amazement when the wife walks back from Costco with Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner, which literally blew my (and my 4 year old son’s) mind away. For the next 3 hours, we patiently followed it room to room as it methodically cleaned each part of the house.

That’s when the penny really dropped:

Technology and more specifically IoT, Big Data & Machine Learning were coming together to really give us some magical experiences. Drones delivering packages, self-driving cars & surgeries from across the world are being brought to life and that too at a commoditized price. Just ranting off some of these use cases and possibilities has the Bollywood junkie in me wanting to do cart-wheels, clap in jubilation and whistle with my hands in mouth.  Let me explain why.

In 2013, I started the IoT (Internet of Things) team for TELUS, with a “plan on a page” and took it to a $55MN business unit within 20 months. It was a great learning experience- from building partnerships, launching products& platforms, hiring people and leveraging an amazing sales channel. More than anything it opened my eyes to the possibilities of IoT– the concept of the physical world around you reacting to your unique needs and preferences to provide a contextual, relevant and a targeted experience.  It had seemed unattainable for years, unless an enterprise spent millions (if not billions) of dollars- but now with commoditized hardware, ubiquitous wireless connectivity, and applications available across various industry verticals was becoming more and more real.

Secondly, with the evolution of Machine Learning – which really is a type of A.I. focusing on the development of computer programs that can teach themselves to grow and change when exposed to new data, is revolutionary.  When you put this all together, with some exciting hardware tech -what one gets is the possibility of a new generation of robots smarter, more mobile, collaborative & adaptable.  There’s a reason why Google has acquired 7 robotics companies in the past 24 months- from humanoids, to bots, to start-ups with a speciality in robotic arms and high-tech wheels. Essentially, seven companies with capabilities and technologies needed to build a new breed of robots- mobile, dexterous and extremely intelligent.

What does this all really mean for businesses?

Dramatic changes in the competitive landscape between nations & companies. As price of these robots gets commoditized, case in point being 3DR creating military-grade drones for <1 percent of what the armed forces paid for its peers,it is clear that the time for smaller manufacturers to go head to head with giants is inevitable. By reducing labor costs, we will also enable the developed and other high-wage countries to get back business ceded to India & China, who traditionally have vast armies of lower-wage workers. Clearly, very interesting times lay ahead of us!

In fact, my “terminator” like robot might also be a very tangible reality in short orders as demonstrated by the faculty from Osaka University recently. They created Chihira Aico, an eerily lifelike communications 'bot made to resemble a 30-something Japanese hostess’. Dozens of actuators manipulate textured synthetic flesh to approximate smiling, blinking, and even crying. She can play piano, too.

Perhaps time for John Connor to really reprise his role! 

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