(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, 20/20 Foresight: A Futurist Looks Ahead to the Ten Trends That Will Shape the World of 2020, that I am writing with the able assistance of fellow futurist Simon Anderson, host ofwww.futur1st.com. This chapter covers advances in the field of robotics.)
In the spring of 2011, AeroVironment released a video demonstrating the company’s latest robot. Called an “ornithoper,” the tiny robotic device resembled and mimicked the quick-moving actions of a hummingbird. The “Nano-Hummingbird,” as it has been dubbed, is a fitting metaphor for our next trend—robotics. This is because, like hummingbirds, the robotics of the future are going to be faster, more agile, and many will take on the forms and actions of things we see in nature.
To appreciate robotics extraordinary advances in the coming decade let’s catch up with Gerhardt, who was recently promoted to Senior Vice President for Robotic Business Development at a large multi-national corporation in Berlin, Germany. After spending his first decade-and-a-half at the company in the field of robotics, he is the perfect fit for the position.
Gerhardt came to the attention of his employer after leading the University of Bielefeld to the “Robocup” championship where his team of nimble robots crushed the team from Singapore Polytechnic. He was first tasked with helping install the company’s prototype automated robotic warehouse. Less than two years later, Gerhardt was charged with overseeing the entire operation.
After it was demonstrated the robots had saved the company millions of dollars by reducing labor costs, speeding up delivery time and reducing energy costs (which were achieved because robots don’t require as much space to move about and because they can work without lights and in colder temperatures), Gerhardt was placed in charge of the company’s world-wide transition to robotic warehouse systems. In this capacity, he came to the attention of company leaders. This was as much for the political acumen he demonstrated in easing tensions with unions and the media over concerns that robots were threatening traditional trade jobs as it was for his expertise in robotics.
In effort to give him more exposure to how the company was planning on using robotics, Gerhardt was cross-transferred to its major airfreight division where he worked on integrating self-driving forklifts and trucks into the company’s global supply chain. His particular focus was improving self-driving robots’ safety and reliability and he left the project only after his robots performed without an accident for six months.
Gerhardt followed this work with a temporary assignment at the Fraunhofer Institute, Europe’s largest application-oriented research organization, where he worked in the field of “swarm” robotics and studied how large numbers of robots could work in coordination to achieve larger goals. In Gerhardt’s case, he specialized in developing an “ant army” of micro-robots that could work together efficiently in search-and-rescue operations. His work was later credited with rescuing scores of people in Turkey after an earthquake leveled an apartment building.
Noting how police and firemen bonded with the larger robotic search-and-rescue companions used during that operation, Gerhardt then took what many of his peers considered a risky career move and agreed to help the company expand into the educational marketplace by creating robots that felt and appeared more human-like. After suffering a series of setbacks, Gerhardt’s decision to change positions was ultimately vindicated when some of his robots were far more successful in instructing children with special needs than any previous attempts had been. It was a source of special pride for Gerhardt that children with autism often responded better to instructions from his robots than they did their human teachers.
It was Gerhardt’s unique combination of experience with traditional manufacturing robots as well as personal service robots that then secured him his next position, serving as the company’s first-ever Director of Robotic Resources. In this newly created position—which created some friction within the organization when it was given responsibilities equal to those of the director of human resources—he was charged overseeing the corporation’s entire fleet of robots, including everything from those that staffed the warehouses, cleaned the hallways and provided security in the parking lots, to the growing number of personal service robots which were used by company employees to attend meetings remotely. The latter robots alone were estimated to have saved the company $37 million in travel costs and reduced its carbon footprint by 84 million tons. The job, however, had its moments. Gerhardt’s greatest challenge came when he was charged with overseeing the company’s crisis management response team in the wake of a fatal accident in which an automated warehouse robotic system killed one employee and damaged millions of dollars worth of inventory.
After serving in this position for three years, Gerhardt’s extensive experience was tapped to lead the corporations’ expansion into developing new robots for the military, educational, healthcare and aging services markets under the company’s new “Developing Robotics” division. As part of his responsibilities, he regularly visited the company’s North American research and development facility outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
On this particular day, Gerhardt’s first stop was the educational lab where company researchers and roboticists were developing a new generation of robots designed to serve as classroom assistants. Fueled by their extraordinary success in assisting children with special needs, the company was keen on reaching a wider audience. Gerhardt was also anxious to expand this business because he knew the time was ripe. Since 2012, the robotics toy market had grown at a CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) of 80 percent and now more than half of all children in North America, East Asia and Europe owned at least one robot. In short, even though their parents may not yet be ready to embrace robotic instructors, Gerhardt was confident the children were.
Gerhardt watched as one experimental robot, which was capable of mimicking 156 unique human-like expressions, silently monitored the classroom of rambunctious kindergartners. Using its onboard cameras and sophisticated facial recognition technology, the robot was able to detect that a particular child was having a difficult time understanding the rules of the game she wanted to play. At a gentle pace and careful to avoid bumping into the other children who were running around, the robot addressed the girl by her first name and asked, “Can I answer any questions for you?” Thinking nothing unusual of a robot speaking to her, the girl looked into its face—which had intentionally been designed not to look like a human—and responded, “Yes. I don’t understand the game.”
“Have you read the rules?” asked the robot. The student nodded affirmatively. “Do you understand all of the words?” The girl sheepishly replied that she did. Sensing the hesitation in her voice, the robot projected the instructions—which it had pulled from the RFID chip on the game’s box—on the wall and asked if there were any words she didn’t understand. The girl pointed to the words “diagonal” and “reverse.” The robot provided formal definitions and then focused its projector on the game board and demonstrated the rules in action. “Oh, that’s easy,” she replied in a satisfied tone.
A few moments later, the robot detected the student was again frustrated. This time, however, upon hearing a tone that it recognized as confrontational, the robot alerted a teacher in another room and transmitted to the instructor a live recording of what was happening—two students were fighting over the game. The teacher rushed to the scene and peacefully resolved the issue without having to threaten “to ask the robot what—or who—caused the problem.” Gerhardt was pleased with the demonstration. It was the company’s stated goal not to use robots to replace teachers but rather help them better interact and engage with students at those points when personalized instruction was essential.
Following a brief conference call with officials of Federation International de Football Association (FIFA) in which he discussed how his company’s miniature butterfly-like robots could be used to discreetly monitor the crowds at the 2022 World Cup soccer games in Qatar (and thus prevent any repeats of the ugly “hooligan” incidents that had marred the 2018 games in Russia), Gerhardt strolled to the second floor of the research and development lab to peak in on the company’s latest developments to create better robots to help the world’s growing number of senior citizens.
At Gerhardt’s urging the company had recently made a strategic decision to supplement its traditional home-aid robotic business with the creation and development of exoskeletons—or wearable robotics. Recent advances in flexible electronics and nanomaterials made the devices extremely lightweight and much less obvious and restrictive than the previous models. The devices also had the added benefit of giving seniors what they really wanted—independence. While some seniors enjoyed using brain-neural devices to control external robots to perform such household chores as getting a cup of coffee or washing laundry, the vast majority still preferred doing these things themselves.
This is not to say that a market didn’t exist for such robots. In fact, Gerhardt was convinced that because of accelerating advances in biotechnology, genomics and regenerative medicine, the fastest growing segment for robotics would be “super” seniors—or those people over 100 years of age. And since exoskeletons were inappropriate for this demographic segment, Gerhardt felt the company should focus their efforts on alternative robotic solutions for them.
Unlike their younger counter-parts, this segment of the market required robotics that addressed the unique needs of chronic aging. The most serious of which was loneliness, and Gerhardt was well versed in the research showing how effective pets were in minimizing depression. To this end, he spearheaded the effort to develop a series of new robotic pets, and he couldn’t help but smile when even he couldn’t distinguish between a real dog and his company’s latest creation. He liked to joke to potential customers that the easiest way to tell a real dog apart from a robotic dog was that the latter didn’t need to eat or go outside to relieve itself and instead—due to the innovative use of new solar paints and longer-lasting batteries—it only had to visit its recharger on the rarest of occasions.
The robotic pets also had the added capability of serving as health monitors which could send alerts to family members or health care providers if their “masters” temperature or blood pressure increased or decreased to dangerous levels or if they didn’t move from their couch or bed for a certain period of time (suggesting a more serious problem.) These features had made robotic pets a popular gift for children to give their aging parents, but Gerhardt was even more optimistic that within the year the federal governments of Japan, Germany and the United States would begin covering the cost of robots for those patients who could demonstrate the device’s primary purpose was health care-related.
After peering in on the status of a new surgical robotic device to assist in treating brain aneurysms, Gerhardt’s final visit of the day took him to the company’s “skunk lab” where researchers were working on the company’s most controversial project—adult entertainment robots. Setting aside his own personal and moral objections to these robots, Gerhardt was aware that history had amply demonstrated the industry most likely to embrace new technology—be it the video cassette tape or the Internet—was the adult entertainment industry. In Gerhardt’s mind it was inevitable that robotics would follow suit. Indeed, his company was behind the curve in this regard. One of his competitors already had on the market a life-sized robot capable of giving a 90-minute massage.
Gerhardt was informed by a fellow robotist in the lab that the touch and feel of its hands were indistinguishable from the hands of a real person. It didn’t surprise him, but he did wonder how he was going to inform his younger brother—who was a professional massage therapist—of this latest development. He then contemplated how far the entire field of robotics had progressed since he graduated from university and could only smile. It was one thing to construct a robot to play a game by kicking a soccer ball, it was altogether something different to construct a robot that could engage in the most intimate of human activities.