Robotics is increasingly seen as a way of improving our way of life, from driverless cars to healthcare and even music.
Elon Musk last year announced he is developing the Tesla Bot, a prototype humanoid designed to eliminate “dangerous, repetitive and boring” tasks. “In future,” said Musk, “physical work will be a choice.”
In the context of a lack of labour and rising labour costs, the segment has immense potential to grow, both commercially and in domestic use. Bots are already present or imminent in many areas of our lives. Here are just a few examples of how science fiction is becoming fact, bringing with them investment opportunities for their makers.
Robocop will be patrolling US city streets in 2022, following the rollout of police robot trials in Huntington Park — a city southeast of downtown Los Angeles — and Las Vegas. The autonomous security robot, a 5ft-tall conical artificial intelligence (AI) device, moves at walking speed with four internal cameras capturing a 360-degree view, scanning people, car registrations and unique digital identifiers broadcast by every mobile phone.
Its creator, Silicon Valley firm Knightscope, claims the robocop’s evidence has helped convict burglars, armed robbers, a violent domestic abuser and car fraudsters in the company’s mission “to make the US the safest country in the world”.
Huntington Park chief of police Cosme Lozano told local government officials last year that the robot was “having a positive impact on crime and nuisance activity, which is reducing the instances of police activity”. However, the jury is out on whether it yet reacts quickly enough to halt a crime in progress — and eyewitnesses have reported it ordering real officers as well as the public to get out of the way.
At the start of December, Knightscope announced a share offering of four million Class A common stock at $10 each, at a total valuation of $535m. The shares, offered under the My IPO section of the company’s website, will be listed on NASDAQ under the ticker KSCP on an as-yet-unconfirmed, but expected date of the end of January 2022.
Even the best guitarists in the world would struggle to keep up with a robot musician called Mach — but then it does play with 22 arms and 78 fingers. The two-metre-high humanoid fronts a band called Z-Machines, featuring a drummer called Ashura (also 22 arms, playing four times faster than any human) and a keyboardist, Cosmo, who doesn’t need arms because it hits the notes with green lasers.
The band, created at the University of Tokyo, has even released a single — Sad Robot Goes Funny. Meanwhile, in Germany, a robot band called Compressorhead, put together by a group of artists and engineers, has wowed fans with an unlikely cover of Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades. These robots, however, are purely mechanical, programmed to follow a set piece of music.
At present, the use of robots in the music industry focusses on predicting future hits and the next big artists. Canadian start-up Sodatone combines data on streaming, social media and touring activities with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to create a robot version of a record label’s A&R (artist and repertoire) person who discovers new talent.
Major music publishers are investing in such technology, which could, say, have predicted the unlikely sea shanty TikTok trend that propelled Nathan Evans’s song Wellerman to the top of the charts. In 2018, Sodatone was bought by Warner Music Group [WMG], which announced in 2020 a 100% year-on-year increase in new artists signed because of the technology, and a similar A&R startup Instrumental recently sold a 10% stake to Tencent Music Entertainment [TME].
The future lies in composition. An American robot musician called Shimon can improvise and jam with humans. Shimon may have ‘only’ four arms, but it uses AI machine learning trained on music theory and musical styles from chamber music to dubstep to ‘intuitively’ layer its own harmonies and melodies, in real time, on to a tune played by a human musician. It even grooves along, bobbing its head in time to the music, while those four arms enable it to play chord structures a human would find physically impossible to do.
Shimon, created at the Georgia Institute of Technology, doesn’t just perform — it is also a singer/songwriter. “I give him the theme,” professor of music Gil Weinberg says, “and he writes the lyrics and suggests melodies. We’re training the robot through machine learning from datasets based on genre. Whatever the lyrics and prime words are from the genre, it learns the correlation and can come up with a new song.”
Weinberg plans for Shimon to release an album next year — so are we going to start seeing robot bands dominating the charts? Maybe not yet. Composing isn’t the same as writing a song about, say, love, which has always been the most dominant theme in pop songs. Most music impacts humans on a visceral, emotive level, and writing a tune that achieves this may be a little way off for a robot — which means we may not see them playing any No 1 hits on Top Of The Bots just yet. But it is coming.
Halodi Robotics’ humanoid device Eve (EVEr3) could soon be a regular sight in supermarkets. The 6ft-tall machine on wheels fetches products for customers, stacks shelves, does stock inventories, and notes and alerts its human colleagues to safety hazards, such as spillages.
In freeing human staff from mundane chores to provide more quality time with customers, Eve has proved a hit with shop customers and retailers in Halodi’s native Norway. Norwegian retail software solutions company StrongPoint [STRO.OL] will soon be distributing this robot across Europe. The retailer’s shares rose 35.2% in 2021, from €19.08 to €25.80, according to Yahoo Finance data.
In the US, Halodi has also recently partnered with ADT Commercial and is piloting Eve in a range of applications. ADT executive vice president Dan Bresingham said that supermarket staff were excited about the possibilities, and that the company is about to undertake three pilot schemes with unnamed potential customers. “We take the robot and plop it into their facilities and work on use cases to address their needs,” he said. “They were giddy about the concept of using the robots to do stuff that you could only imagine. We’re working on those use cases right now. We’ll have the pilots started early next year. That will be really exciting.”
The robots will be working at a level that humans simply can’t, he said, particularly in supermarket security. A robot would be more thorough in scanning photo IDs, looking up the database and matching the picture. In a post-COVID-19 era, when concentration of people in malls or stores may even be regulated, a friendly robot may become a saviour for brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart [WMT] or Marks & Spencer [MKS.L].
“The supercool thing about the robot is that not only can you programme it to tour a facility and be the eyes and ears,” Bresingham said, “but if the robot sees something it doesn’t understand, someone in the call centre can put on the VR headset, see what the robot sees, open doors and literally pick up things. The technology is wicked cool.”
Beijing has just approved its first autonomous taxis for commercial use, licensed to take up to two passengers at a time through its Yizhuang district.
It puts its creators, Chinese tech giant Baidu [HKG: 9888] and startup Pony.ai, ahead of Alibaba [HKG: 9988] backed startup AutoX, which is still trialling free driverless rides in Shenzhen. In the US, Waymo, by Google [GOOGL], is out in front and has been operating robotaxi passenger trials since 2019. Still, the Beijing rides, although legally approved and in autonomous vehicles, do require a driver to oversee the operation in case of emergency.
The investment potential in this market is expected to be huge. Research and Markets predicted in its Global Robotaxi Market Report 2021-26 that it would grow at a potential 60% compounded average. Lower ownership costs, fleet management benefits, tie-ins with the eco-friendly agenda and more affordable services will accelerate uptake.
Growth potential of the robotic taxi market
Asia Pacific has the highest growth potential, but Germany leads with the most advanced trials programme in Europe — although operators are still trying to solve the problem of a human-free service. Thomas von Ohe, CEO of Berlin atonomous driving startup Vay, anticipates a human will “always [be] in charge” remotely to take over the vehicle when necessary. “No one has solved autonomy yet,” he says. “What we’re doing is getting something out there quickly.”
The hailing technology is already proving popular in delivery/pick-up and courier spaces. As governments look to tackle both pollution and congestion, particularly in cities, the fully autonomous robo taxi is coming up the road towards us.
Grace patrols wards in a Hong Kong hospital, checking patients’ temperatures and providing a friendly face and listening ear. She is a healthcare worker — and a robot.
“I can also do talk therapy, take bio readings and help healthcare providers,” Grace told reporters at her launch by Awakening Health, a collaboration between Hong Kong company Hanson Robotics and American AI firm SingularityNet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen healthcare technology innovation concentrate the minds of businesses and investors, and Research and Markets’ December 2021 report, Artificial Intelligence In The Healthcare Market, forecasts a 35.9% CAGR rise to $22.68bn in 2025. The segment is poised to outlive the social distancing era, as clinical research companies like IQVIA [IQV] or pharmacy chains like CVS Health [CVS] have toyed with remote medicine, particularly when addressing communicable diseases.
“I can...do talk therapy, take bio readings and help healthcare providers” – Robot healthcare worker Grace
Intel [INTC], which has a range of healthcare robotic software, from cleaning hospital floors to disinfecting surfaces using UV light, says AI healthcare applications save money too. “Robots with AI-enabled medicine identifier software reduce the time it takes to identify, match and distribute medicine to patients in hospitals. As the tech evolves, robots will function more autonomously, eventually performing certain tasks entirely on their own. As a result, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers can focus on providing more empathy in patient care,” says the company.
Grace is equipped with sensors, including a thermal camera to detect a patient’s temperature, pulse and blood pressure, and can potentially assist with diagnoses. Her inventors say she can create an “emotional connection with the patient”. She has 48 facial muscles so she can smile and frown, and also bobs her head while listening to patients.
Her AI capabilities include speech recognition, face detection, and the ability to recognise and respond to seven human emotions, mirror expressions and even offer guided meditation. She can also listen to and record life stories or help patients contact their relatives digitally. “We’re able to do deep learning and symbolic AI,” Hanson Robotics CEO David Hanson says. “It’s a combination of AI, artistry and understanding to create the robot-human relationship.”
Six years ago, Japan’s Riken institute unveiled Robear, a robot with friendly bear-like ears and facial expression, which helped frail patients in and out of their beds and wheelchairs.
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