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Robots can now collaborate over their very own Internet

This article was first published on 13 March 2013.

You should read this article but, before you do, go back and read my post and the associated article titled "Better than human - why robots will - and must - take our jobs" from a couple of months ago.  It provides great background on what’s happening in the world of robotics and the way in which accelerating automation has the potential to disrupt and transform virtually every aspect of the commercial world as we know it.

As for this most recent article about robots having their own internet, it’s yet another sign of a movement to connect robots and intelligent devices to cloud-based, shared learning and knowledge sharing platforms.  Only a couple of months ago we read of the launch of a Robot App store by Willow Garage that similarly plans to enable developers to build robotics applications on an open source basis that can then be downloaded to any robot.

I think it’s worth keeping an eye on this for a handful of reasons.

  • Firstly, there’s every chance that robots will, over the next five to ten years, make the transition from predominantly science fiction to predominantly science fact – particularly in the context of our everyday lives.  Why do I say that?  Industrial robots, for example, have traditionally been expensive, impersonal machines requiring vast amounts of capital and programming expertise.  But the recent launch of Baxter, a relatively inexpensive, personable, easily programmed industrial robot pitched at small businesses provides a view of how the old world of industrial robots is changing.  Similarly, the world of consumer robots is beginning to explode.  Home use robots for vacuum cleaning, pool cleaning, lawn mowing are already making an impact and a wave of telepresence robots for applications such as medicine, distance learning and collaboration are set to enter the mainstream in the next twelve months (see for example doublerobotics ipad robot).
  • Secondly, the developments with industrial and consumer robotics are both being fuelled by and fuelling rapid improvements in power and capability and rapid reductions in price.  Moore’s law is at work here and, just as it’s doing with 3D printing, has the potential to bring a technology that was once available only to a limited few into the hands of many.
  • Thirdly, Metcalf’s law becomes operative once robotic devices become connected to the same cloud-based network.  In essence Metcalf’s law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users connected to the system.  In the case of robots, connection to a central knowledge hub provides a means of drawing, in real-time, on the processing power of the cloud and the knowledge and experience of every other robot on the network.  Importantly, the cloud provides the ability to tap both the experience of other bots individually and the learnings derived from taking a “big data” perspective across all machines connected to the cloud.

One final observation – Improved collaboration and knowledge-sharing has been the Holy Grail for organisations around the world, particularly professional services firms, for twenty to thirty years and, by and large, they have struggled to make real headway in this area.  It’s probably fair to say that most of the difficulties in relation to knowledge creation, harvest, sharing and application are the product of biological and psychological limitations in people.  It’s fascinating that to think that a collection of robots connected to the cloud might be a significantly superior embodiment of the ideals around individual learning, organisation learning, knowledge sharing and collaboration that organisations aspire to.  This isn’t just a cute point.  Superior performance in relation to learning and knowledge sharing may well turn out to be major contributors to the pace at which industrial and consumer robots impact our industries and lives over the coming decade.

Robotics is no longer a fringe technology.  It’s set to become mainstream and to become mainstream increasingly quickly.  As with most of these stories, the message for CEO’s, senior executives and strategists is watch this space.

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