Recently, I got flak from one reader for broaching the subject of ethics and robotics. Later, I was pleased to learn about Clearpath’s $11 million in financing for developing new “ethical” robots. According to the press release issued by the company, the majority of the funding will be applied to R&D to expand into new applications as the market for robots is starting to heat up.
In addition to its focus on expanding its revenues, the company is also concerned about the direction of the industry as a whole. Last year, Clearpath joined the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a group of activists working for policies to prevent the production of autonomous devices that are able to fire weapons without human intervention. As part of that, the company made a pledge that it would not play any role in the development of autonomous weaponized devices.
According to Clearpath’s CEO, Matt Rendall, “There are no technical impediments to building killer robots…only policy can stop it. So we made the decision to put our stick in the ground and say ‘this is the line we will not cross.’ We hoped that if we put it out there, we’d get people talking about it.”
As an investor in the space, I have always felt that socially conscious companies succeed best, and Clearpath’s story is a remarkable in itself. The company has gone from a small angel concern in 2010 to one of the leading providers of autonomous robots in the mining space. Clearly, the company seems to be on the right path (pun intended) to take advantage of the burgeoning robotic revolution.
Clearpath’s capital raise is a sign of the overall growth of the industry. This boom is being driven by the new demand for robots by small to mid-size companies. As an example, China (the workshop for the world) became the largest buyer of industrial robots in 2013, as factories like Foxconn and others look to drive productivity in the face of labor costs and shortages. According to the International Federation of Robotics, one in five robots sold globally in 2013 were bought by Chinese manufacturers, overtaking tech-savvy Japan for the first time.
Therefore it is no surprise that Rodney Brooks’ Rethink Robotics just closed on $26 million this week from Goldman Sachs and GE Ventures. A large portion of the funds will go to support the rollout for Baxter’s younger (but more skilled) brother, Sawyer. Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer at Rethink Robotics, says China is likely to be a big market for its Sawyer robot. “China is being particularly hit by labor shortages and labor rates. We had one customer who recently went through the Chinese New Year and 60 percent of his employees did not return.”
Unveiled on Thursday, Sawyer is a single-armed robot that is more accurate, faster, and smaller than his older two-armed brother. This enables Sawyer to accomplish a wider range of tasks, such as machine tending and circuit board testing. Sawyer enters the market with some competition from Denmark’s Universal Robots’ new UR3, a smaller table-top machine that can also be used to assemble, polish, glue and screw a range of components. Today UR’s robots are used to pack millions of eggs and can also be found in Volkswagen’s Salzgitter engine plant in Germany. Last year, Volkswagen said it plans to use robots to cope with a shortage of new workers caused by retiring baby boomers.
Dan Kara, robotics practice director at ABI Research, believes the latest models will help boost the number of collaborative robots being used in factories. “The dexterity of the new generation of co-operative robots is improving. . . and they have the added advantage of working safely and effectively in workspaces occupied by humans,” says Kara.
Lightweight collaborative robots are cheaper, more dexterous, easier to move between tasks and do not require specialist programming skills. Many of them can be taught new moves by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to show it what to do. The price tag for the new Sawyer robot is $29,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot. Universal Robots sells its flexible, lightweight robot arms from €20,000 to €30,000. Obviously the price point equal to the annual salary of a human, makes these robots an attractive value proposition for small to mid-size factories. In addition, many factories like Foxconn are employing robots to meet the stricter worker safety standards by their clients (i.e., Apple). The question is when robots replace workers, will the humans be given new jobs that require greater skill and understanding that is not yet available in the current crop of robots?
Rethink has trialed Sawyer with several manufacturing companies, including Jabil, a US-based electronics company. It has received hundreds of pre-orders for the robot and plans to launch it widely next January. But despite the excitement over human-machine collaboration, sales of co-bots are a small proportion of the 179,000 industrial robots sold each year. The majority of robot sales still continue to be the traditional, large caged machines (for the time being).
The good news is that the robotic revolution has arrived and the capital markets are waking up. The bad news is ethical questions about robots and their interactions with humans will not go away (even if some of my readers wish they would) it is up to companies like Clearpath to lead the way before regulation forces the industry.