There is a critical mass of innovation and momentum in robotics right now. Recent advances in actuator miniaturization, prosthetics, micro-sensors, machine learning, IoT, "light-weighting," batteries, and manufacturing--often referred to as Industry 4.0--are combining with increasing investments in research and development (R&D) and growing social and legal acceptance. As a result, autonomous, mobile, and often humanoid robots will be with us very soon.
How soon is up for debate, but the companies developing these robots are getting bigger and more powerful and the advances more rapid. Boston Dynamics, the company that makes the robots you may have seen dancing and performing parkour on YouTube, and whose inspection robot Spot is already commercially available for just $75,000, was recently acquired by Hyundai.
More than just videos
However, Hyundai didn't acquire Boston Dynamics to make videos. The company will soon be mass-producing robots like cars. They will be unlike the simple, single-function industrial and professional service robots of today or the imaginary individualized humanoid robots of science fiction. The robots they and other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will make will be smart, ubiquitous, capable of taking on multiple complex tasks, and affordable.
Equipped with a wide variety of sensors, and connected to the internet, these robots won't need individual and expensive 'brains.' They will be managed by cloud-based control systems that will be continuously improved and updated to offer a wide variety of robot control packages and subscriptions. Want your robot to cook dinner? Subscribe to the chef package. Clean the office? Download the janitorial program. Take care of the garden? Subscribe to the landscaping option.
The revolution will be automated and fast
When they arrive, these robots will revolutionize the world. Businesses are already buying more than $100 billion worth of robots to supplement and replace human labor in manufacturing, inspection, maintenance, agriculture, military, logistics, construction, and medicine. They will buy and deploy more of these new, higher functioning, and more flexible robots.
Consumers will also adopt them as personal service robots to cook, clean, garden, and provide security and companionship. Probably at the same rate they bought other highly priced but desirable consumer items. Automobiles achieved a penetration rate of nearly 60 percent of U.S. households within 15 years. Cell phones and computers achieved close to 100 percent within 20 to 30 years.
The enormous social and fiscal impact and opportunities
If the current labor shortage continues and/or demand for goods and services grows, robot labor, and the productivity gains it brings, will be welcome. If, however, demand has stagnated or declined, robots will be feared and resisted.
Regardless, the changes will be massive, and policy and preparation will almost certainly lag behind the technology. Fear or obliviousness will lead many to over- or under-react. Some people will try to preserve revenue and jobs using protectionism. Others will ignore the changes or believe market dynamics will sort everything out over time and fail to adapt to the new market realities.
Far-sighted businesses and governments, therefore, have a window of opportunity. Those who plan and act now will be the first to realize the productivity, revenue, and quality of life gains robots will bring and will likely be the leaders of the second half of the 21st century.
You need to plan for this now
If you are an entrepreneur or business leader, you should be proactively positioning your organization for this change now. Identify where robot labor can and should be added, how robots will reduce costs, and where they can improve your existing products and services.
Think through and plan out how you will manage and lead your employees and customers through the coming changes. Project when and where the robot revolution will create new and greater opportunities for your business, and where it will remove them. And begin innovating new products and services that will leverage and complement robots now.
In short, work out who the winners and losers will be, and make sure your business is one of the winners.
Damian Smith is the President & CEO of Pepper Foster Consulting, a strategy and execution consulting firm that helps organizations and entrepreneurs figure stuff out and get stuff done and is an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing company in America.