Robots Ready to Move Mainstream

Are the robots coming, or are they already here? Fresh off the impressive, successful Mars landing of NASA’s InSight lander robotic spacecraft, it seems appropriate to suggest that robots have already begun to make their presence felt across many aspects of our lives. Not only in space exploration and science, but as we enter into the holiday shopping season, their presence is being felt in industry and commerce as well.

Behind the scenes at factories building many of the products in demand this holiday season, to the warehouses that store and ship them out, robots have been making a significant impact for quite some time. Building on that success, both Nvidia and Amazon recently made announcements about robotics-related offerings intended to further advancements in industrial robots.

Just outside of Shanghai last week, at the company’s GTC China event, Nvidia announced that Chinese e-commerce giants and Meituan have both chosen to use the company’s Jetson AGX Xavier robotics platform for the development of next-generation autonomous delivery robots. Given the expected growth in online shopping in China, both e-commerce companies are looking to develop a line of small autonomous machines that can be used to deliver goods directly to consumers, and they intend to use Xavier and its associated JetPack SDK to do so.

At the company’s AWS:Invent event in Las Vegas this week, Amazon launched a cloud-based robotics test and development platform called AWS RoboMaker that it’s making available through its Amazon Web Services cloud computing offering. Designed for everyone from robotics students who compete in FIRST competitions through robotics professionals working at large corporations, RoboMaker is an open-source tool that leverages and extends the popular Robot Operating System (ROS).

Like some of Nvidia’s software offerings, RoboMaker is designed to ease the process of programming robots to perform sophisticated actions that leverage computer vision, speech recognition, and other AI-driven technologies. In the case of RoboMaker, those services are provided via a connection to Amazon’s cloud computing services. RoboMaker also offers the ability to manage large fleets of robots working together in industrial environments or places like large warehouses (hmm…wonder why?!)

The signs of growing robotic influence have been evident for a while in the consumer market as well. The success of Roomba robotic vacuums, for example, is widely heralded as the first step in a home robotics revolution. Plus, with the improvements that have occurred in critical technologies such as voice recognition, computer vision, AI, and sensors, we’re clearly on the cusp of what are likely to be some major consumer-focused robotics introductions in 2019. Indeed, Amazon is heavily rumored to be working on some type of home robot project—likely leveraging their Alexa work—that’s expected to be introduced sometime next year.

Robotics is also a key part of the recent renaissance in STEM education programs, as it allows kids of many ages to see the fun, tangible efforts of their science, math, and engineering-related skills brought to life. From the high-school level FIRST robotics competitions, down to early grade school level programs, future robotics engineers are being trained via these types of activities every day in schools around the world.

The influence of these robotics programs and the related maker movement developments have reached into the mainstream as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Raspberry Pi development board and other robotics-related educational toys in stock and on sale at, of all places, my local Target over the Black Friday shopping weekend.

The impact of robots certainly isn’t new in either the consumer or business world. However, except for a few instances, real-world interactions with them have still been limited for most people. Clearly, that’s about to change, and people (and companies) are going to have to be ready to adapt. Like the AI technologies that underlie a lot of the most recent robotics developments, there are some great opportunities, but also some serious concerns, particularly around job replacement, that more advanced robotics will bring with them. The challenge moving forward will be determining how to best use robots and robotic technology in ways that can improve the human experience.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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