Oliver Mitchell of Autonomy Ventures, who also blogs at The Robot Rabbi, spoke at our January 26 Investor Breakfast, and the conversation was column-worthy. After all, the robots are coming and that’s very much Oliver’s domain, and their growing presence on the global landscape, along with other technologies, is being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as Oliver pointed out. In fact, the day before the breakfast, The New York Times ran on piece on How to Make America’s Robots Great Again, pointing out how China is investing heavily in the manufacturing of robots, and the US needs to do so as well.
The big fear is that robots will be – and currently are – taking jobs formerly held by lower skilled labor, and the fear is not unfounded. As Oliver noted, they’re also taking jobs in higher skilled areas, even replacing financial analysts and advisors. So are we looking at some relatively far off dystopian future?
“When I was growing up, computers were only used by large corps or government, and with a few highly skilled operators operating them,” said Oliver. “Not until Windows 95 (was introduced) that computers and personal computers became ubiquitous, and really fulfilled the dreams of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. If I told you a decade ago, or a decade and a half ago, about robots, you’d have thought Robbie the Robot and big industrial robots…Compared to personal computing, we’re standing in 1990 – 5 years before robots become ubiquitous.”
Autonomy Ventures does early stage investments in robotics, mobility and AI, including a focus on Enhanced Manufacturing, human augmentation, shipping and logistics, automotive, marine drones and health care.
Unlike the last industrial age, where the assembly line disenfranchised many manual laborers, robots will accomplish even more tasks, especially with the advent of drones and AI – and autonomous vehicles.
“Several months months ago, my Uber turned to me and said, do you think there will be yellow cabs on the road,” said Oliver. “So I said to him, I don’t think you’re going to be in that driver seat in 5 years.”
Autonomous Ubers are already negotiating the streets of Pittsburgh and in Arizona, and certainly alleviated the problem of hailing a cab at CES in Las Vegas this past January, with autonomous automobiles outside of the North Hall parking lot, as Oliver pointed out.
Where else will be seeing a stronger presence of robots?
We’re already seeing it. “There was an Arkansas murder that had an Alexa as the star witness,” said Oliver. “Robot can be a co conspirator and witness to a crime.”
“Mobility: autonomous cars, autonomous trucks moving goods. Aerial: flying cars can get you to the mall. Autonomous wheelchairs, skooters, buses. In the next few years, 70 million people will be over 65, Oliver noted. With AI, robotics, telemedicine and telepresence, their needs will be better addressed, and people can live longer.”
Agricultural tech will be another big area of focus, as the UN projects that by 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet, and most of them living in urban areas. We’ll need more food than ever before, and the current food supply will not be sufficient. “The only way to bridge the gap is through smart technology,” said Mitchell.
When you consider fire fighting – especially with large forest fires – and potential nuclear meltdowns, robots can be life savers, since they can potentially navigate large fires more easily, and withstand the flames and lack of oxygen longer than can humans. In fact, when the reactor at Fukushima was melting down in 2011 following a large tsunami, Oliver noted, many scientists lost their lives attempting to shut down the core. A robot had to be reprogrammed to enter the building wielding an axe, navigate the landscape, and accomplish the task –which it did, and which was a monumental undertaking for a robot at the time, considering the degree of sophistication that was necessary to accomplish all of those disparate tasks.
With the coming of autonomous vehicles, urban planning will have to change, with autonomous lanes becoming part of the landscape, alongside bike lanes, as a new sort of HOV lane, which we will no doubt be seeing in not too long a time on highways as well. After all, most accidents are due to human error, so best to remove humans in non-autonomous vehicles from that lane.
“We’re in the most dangerous period right now,” said Mitchell. Drivers of autonomous cars treat is like autopilot, and some are even in the back seat, watching videos, rather than in the driver seat where they belong. “They’re supposed to be near by and hands free driving. Like cruise control. When there’s an obstacle, the human has to take over – that’s when you are being a good participant. But you’re relaxing a little bit. Your eyes aren’t focused. In that two second delay going from AI to human, that’s the most dangerous time (and the time when most accident happen). Two seconds is a long time in the driving experience.”
“Robots will have to make ethical decisions. (In a potential accident situation): bikes, baby, truck. What does the computer do? Avoid the truck. Kill the baby? Or the driver, who is responsible for the accident? Human would have to make that decision, too. There are 35,000 accidents that lead to fatalities every year – most happen through human error. What’s going to happen is new public policy. Avoid the truck, save the passenger, save the baby. These are conundrums that humans have to deal with, too.
“We won’t go from driving in midtown to autonomous vehicles. There will have to be a hands free lane. It’ll still be bumper to bumper, but it will be faster. There will be less reactionary breaking, for example. Going into a hands free lane will avoid that situation. We’ll need a different way of thinking about urban development, in my opinion.”
Drones, both hobbyist and professional, are becoming more prevalent, and compounding the problem is the fact that FAA regulations can’t keep up with the industry. And while the market for airborne drones saturated, such is not the case when it comes underwater drones.
We’re already witnessing what ecommerce has done to brick and mortar, with Kohl’s and Macy’s shutting down some stores, and The Limited shutting down all together. Then there’s Amazon Go – stores without the need for human attendants – for a peek into the next iteration.
Many entrepreneurs and investors are focused on consumer solutions presently, as that’s where the money is, as Oliver noted, but the opportunity in enterprise is huge – and will no doubt only become bigger as we barrel towards this new future. And if you’re focused on a small segment, or pilot, as Oliver said, someday there will be a Kinkos for drones. One-stop renting.
There’s no doubt that many more jobs will be lost than can be created, and part of the solution is earlier retirement, as Oliver suggested, “although union tend to be reactionary rather than progressive, so that’s a problem,” and focus must also be placed on retraining younger employees to fulfill some of the new tasks that will be required, as well as putting a greater focus on vocational schools, rather than college, for some people, so that they can emerge with practical skills.
Oliver spoke for over an hour and a half and we can’t get into all of the areas that were discussed, and some of it was off the record, so we can’t post the audio. He does host a meetup, fyi, under the Robot Lab, if you missed the breakfast.
One thing he did mention, en passante, that we found particularly interesting was that robotics are more the domain of the Northeast than Silicon Valley, so in not too long a time, where will that leave the Silicon sultanate? How long before the Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages – although Google is invested in autonomous vehicles, AI et al – become a footnote in books on the early days of tech? Google maps and streetviews may be the present go-to, but how long before today’s hobbyists who will become the leaders of this new Industrial Revolution, design – or buy – their own solutions and leave Google literally by the wayside? As we’ve said before, no one stays on top forever and every dog has his day. With the next generation of creators already here, that’s gotta be a bitch. Onward and forward.