The 2014 Taiwan Automation Intelligence and Robot Show presented plenty of new ideas in robotics, including two very big ideas.
First, as countries like the U.S. decide to bring their manufacturing jobs home, Taiwan is looking for ways to extend their robotics industry beyond manufacturing. Robots that can be trained, they figure, will be able to work in other sectors. Many of the new trends in industrial automation — sensors that approximate vision, robots with safety features that allow human/robot collaboration, production automation integrated with digital intelligence — these are the same capacities that make it possible for robots to work among human beings outside of factories.
Think of factories as zoos for robots, where they are kept safe from people and people are kept safe from them. Then imagine that those safety restrictions are gone. There are a lot of jobs outside of manufacturing that robots could do.
For Taiwan, stepping forward with robots outside of manufacturing could provide an edge that will keep their automation industry successful as manufacturing in China takes a hit. Increasing Chinese labor costs, U.S. consumers who hesitate to buy products made in China, bad press, rising commitment to American-made products, and sincere concern over human rights and safety have all affected the willingness of American and European companies to offshore their manufacturing.
If Taiwan can produce and market robots outside of the manufacturing space, they will be ahead of the curve. While robots have been used for consumer services in Japan for a while, most of the world has not embraced robot workers.
Taiwan’s automation industry thinks it’s time to change that. The government is putting 33.3 billion dollars into the effort. Robots will be designed for everything from medicine to entertainment. Some jobs, like those of bank tellers and nurses, are expected to be robot-only in the future… no humans need apply.
That brings up the second big idea: humans need to adapt. Just as the music industry had to adapt when digital downloads replaced records and CDs, banking and nursing will have to adapt as many of the jobs in their sectors become automated. So will other industries, as consumers adapt to machines in their daily lives.
As fond as people are of their cell phones, it might not be a hard sell.