Despite their scale and feats of strength, industrial robots are designed using fairly simple technology. When most people talk about cutting-edge robots with artificial intelligence, they are usually talking about service robots, which are destined for more open-ended problems – interacting with children, for example, or defusing mines.
Examples of well-known service robots include US-based iRobot’s popular Roomba home vacuum robot, Honda’s humanoid Asimo (which was falsely rumored to be headed for rescue work at the Fukushima nuclear accident site) and the advanced humanoid Nao robot made by Aldebaran Robotics, which danced its way through the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) held in Shanghai in May.
“Service robots are completely different animals,” said Andy Kirkwood, managing director of Global Robots. “They are a big step forward.”
The International Federation of Robotics has a long list of other applications that range from the simple to the sophisticated: There are robots for milking cows (the DeLaval AMR), assisting with knee surgery (the Blue Motion Cyberknife), and exploring the deep sea (the Atlas Maridan).
Given the wider scope of potential applications, there is a far more diverse cluster of companies making these human helpers, including some Chinese companies. Shanghai XPartner, for example, makes an educational robot called Dragon Guard that it displayed at ICRA this year, and it also sells robot kits to hobbyists. More lucratively, perhaps, it also produces a line of demining robots for the military.
Some makers of industrial robots do dabble in service robots – Tom Zou, chief operating officer of Kuka Robotics, said his firm is trying to break into the market in Japan – but their experience does not give them much of a competitive advantage. Industrial robot manufacturers are accustomed to serving a few massive customers and producing products designed to last a lifetime, and they have no particular advantage in the all-important field of artificial intelligence.
Like industrial robots, service robots are starting to sell well in China, and manufacturers have taken note. US-based iRobot, for example, recently announced it will begin marketing its line of cleaning robots here next year.
There hasn’t been much concern expressed by organized labor yet, but perhaps there should be. Robots are good at jobs that follow fixed rules, be they simple guides or complex algorithms. That means more jobs are at risk than one might think. Sure, robots can clean pools and vacuum floors. But wait: Robots can also analyze X-rays, guide surgery and manage stock portfolios, tasks which were reserved for comfortably paid middle-class humans.
Given the rote training methodology used in Chinese universities, employers often complain that Chinese college graduates are unable to think out of the box. In the next decade, companies may be able to buy employees that think inside the box, right off the shelf.