The robots really are rising

When robots do things in the pandemic that humans can't, the advantage now lies with them. The machines are rising.

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  1. Garry White

As the era of 5G communication dawns, science fiction is becoming science fact; the age of the fully autonomous robot is now upon us. A deal was recently signed that will allow robots to connect to the cloud, so they can be manually operated and programmed “on the fly” via the internet. This is a crucial step in the rise of the machines.

Covid-19 has transformed how people work, but it also means that some jobs will disappear for good. As businesses automate processes to comply with social distancing rules, robots are on the verge of living up to their science-fiction hype.

This week, a cafe in South Korea deployed a robot barista to comply with the government’s policy of “distancing in daily life”. Rwanda also deployed five anti-coronavirus robots in its capital Kigali. They will be used for mass temperature screening, monitoring patient status, and keeping medical records of Covid-19 patients.

But perhaps the most significant recent step in the robotics industry came from US firm Boston Dynamics.

Full-autonomous robot

This industry pioneer, which makes a genuinely terrifying canine robot called Spot, announced a partnership with robot software operations platform Rocos that will allow Spot to connect to the cloud. After years of development, Boston Dynamics, previously owned by Google owner Alphabet before it was sold to Japan’s Softbank, plans to make Spot available for purchase on its website soon for around the price of a small car.

The global pandemic has already provided some significant opportunities for Spot to demonstrate its capabilities. The robot has been used in a park in Singapore to help encourage social distancing (with a human in tow that actually handed out any fines), and has been deployed to help screen patients who may have Covid-19 at a US hospital.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston recently used the canine robot as a vehicle for telemedicine and maintaining social distancing. But the advent of cloud robotics will give these autonomous machines instant access to vast amounts of processing power and data. The units can essentially download new skills instantly – just like the electronic character Agent Smith in the Matrix series of films.

Ultimately, this development should help make robots smaller, cheaper and much, much smarter. The next few years will see wider use of service robots which, like Spot, have been getting increasing attention during the health crisis, being used for disinfection, drone deliveries – and even preparing food. Recent events mean Boston Dynamics is also considering ways to use Spot to deep-clean important areas.

Cleaning machines

“Everybody wants their train station and other facilities to be disinfected so that when you go in, you know you’re safe,” Marc Raibert, its chief executive, recently noted. “And in those kinds of situations, robots can autonomously do all the operations because there aren’t people there to interact with.”

The robot disinfection industry is already well advanced. UVD Robots, the Danish manufacturer of ultra-violet light disinfection robots, has been in commercial operation for more than two years. The UVD robot breaks down a pathogen’s genetic material using ultra-violet light and is a good line of defence against hospital-acquired infections. The robot is safe, reliable and eliminates human error.

As the Covid-19 infection spread, the company started getting large orders from China and then Italy, and interest in such devices has spread around the world. There are, of course, many other players in the market, including Bioquell and Steris.

The market will grow rapidly. The travel business is one of the most at-risk industries from the health crisis and businesses such as cruise ships will need to demonstrate the actions taken to boost sterility of a vessel.

Such robots are likely to provide a good solution to reassure cruise takers, who are usually in the older, more vulnerable demographic.

Human interaction?

Covid-19 is likely to cause people to become more accepting of robot-human interactions. People have mostly said they like human interaction when they are being provided with services, but the Covid-19 infection has changed all that. Social distancing is now a priority and the new rules and fear of the illness among vulnerable groups are likely to have a lasting impact on people’s behaviour.

The fallout may also help us get through the “uncanny valley”. This is a concept first talked about in the Seventies by Masahiro Mori, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He observed that as robots appear more human-like, they become more appealing, but only up to a certain point. When robots start looking realistic, they make people feel they are “creepy” as they are almost there but something is not quite right.

Over the next decade or so, robots look set to become an everyday part of our world. However, in the short term, companies making cleaning and disinfecting robots are likely to be in the first wave of sector winners. Covid-19 has hurried the arrival of the “future of work”, which does not just mean more flexible working from home, but that more automation and artificial intelligence will come into our lives. And they will be more readily accepted by people than in the pre-Covid world. There will be fear-mongering about the future of work – especially for the low paid.

But when the robots do things in the pandemic that humans can’t – namely prevent a deadly infection by viruses at no risk to the cleaner – the advantage now lies with them. They really are rising.

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