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Special to California Business Journal.
It’s long been the stuff of science fiction fantasy. A world in which the robots rise up and take over the world to create a dystopian society in which we are the servants. But, fortunately, it is likely to remain a fantasy confined to movies like Blade Runner and TV shows like Westworld.
In actual fact, the use of robotics has long been a part of business and industry and has helped to streamline processes, reduce production costs, and allow human employees to be more productively engaged than simply carrying out repetitive and unskilled tasks. So, even the more realistic fears experienced by many people who believed that the introduction of robots would lead to mass unemployment, have not come to pass.
What’s more, the progress of technology has meant that the current generation of robots has evolved to not only be able to perform a far more complex set of tasks than had once been anticipated, but also to learn and refine their actions as time goes on.
This is where artificial intelligence also comes into play; with machines able, within limits, to reason and reach conclusions based on experience as well as to adapt to prevailing conditions.
One industry that has undoubtedly benefited from this is the construction sector. Where once it was felt that robotics would not be suitable due to the many variable factors on a site, AI has helped to overcome this. A prime example is the very appropriately named Hadrian X bricklaying and wall building robot. Within its system, it can make minute adjustments needed to offset the effects of wind and vibration on a site to become even more accurate than a human could ever be. Of course, construction sites are dangerous places and, in the battle to reduce workplace accidents, the use of a robotic machine like this is another obvious benefit.
Service industries are also starting to benefit from robotics in some other surprising ways. For example, more and more often incoming calls are being handled by so-called chatbots. Again, AI is making these ever more responsive and able to adjust their style and tone according to the nature of the conversation. The financial sector has also started to use increasingly sophisticated bots more complex tasks that, previously, would have needed major human input. A prime example comes from a surprising source in the form of the forex industry, an industry in which many companies vie for business. In the world of trading in currencies, the very best trading bots can analyze market situations and seize opportunities that may otherwise be missed, while also being able to process large amounts of data.
Turning to the healthcare sector, this is another that has started to employ robotics in a wide range of ways. The concept of robotic surgery is a well-established one but it’s in the field of combining assessment and treatment that some of the greatest leaps forward are being made. A good example of this is a machine that is currently being trialed that can combine carrying out a CT scan of a knee before creating a 3D model of the joint, as well as recommending the best course of action pre-surgery. On a more everyday level, mobile robots are increasingly being used to automatically transport trolleys of medication and other supplies around hospitals, reducing the risk of cross-infection as well as greatly increasing efficiency.
Agriculture has always been fairly highly mechanized, and now farmers are also being given more and more assistance by robots in areas in which it would previously have been impossible. Fruit picking, in particular, has always been a very labor-intensive business that has been difficult to automate. But advances mean that robots can now pinpoint fruits to be picked through multiple cameras and pluck one from the tree or bush every two seconds before sorting them into the appropriate size and category. The use of drones has also transformed everything from identifying areas of land that are failing, to provide the expected yields to making crop-spraying and general pest control a far faster and less expensive process.
Robotics are also helping to transform where many of the results of a farmer’s efforts end up – in the industrial kitchen. Besides the expected food prep duties, the latest generation of kitchen robots have been developed to have many of the skills needed by top chefs. In many cases, the machine learning has been carried out by studying the processes carried out by chefs themselves and copying and refining them.
So, while we still may be quite a way from a robot ever receiving a Michelin star or being given a Nobel prize for contributions to medicine, automation is clearly advancing at pace. Where it will lead us, nobody knows exactly. But it’s sure to be an exciting journey.