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Robots Everywhere! Endless Possibilities for Entrepreneurs

Robots are in the air, well, literally. All the press is full of discussions of aerial drones to address last mile delivery challenges, championed by the likes of Amazon, trying to think through the practicalities and regulatory aspects of using drones thus. In this post I discuss some ways in which entrepreneurs should think about the opportunities presented by advances in robotics that look likely over the next decade or so, to cause us to rethink the way we engage in several types of enterprise.

Robots aren’t really new. I’m sure there are even older examples, but the ones with which I’m most familiar are those used in medicine. In the mid-1980s, a rudimentary (by today’s standards) robot was used to biopsy brain tissue, and not long after, robots helped perform minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries, hip and other joint replacements, and so on. These surgical robots have come a long way since then.

That’s but one example of a class of effects of which the entrepreneur should be aware and of the ways in which robots might affect particular vocations and businesses. Another setting where I have first-hand experience with robots is in large industrial warehouses. Warehouses are increasingly staffed by robots, where they might be used to stack or retrieve materials or finished products, and might just obviate the need for humans to move around cavernous spaces, threading their way through situations where they might be exposed to inadvertent danger.

It’s easy to identify several categories of tasks that are best done by robots. First, they perform humdrum tasks expertly. Second, they take care of hazardous situations, perhaps handling material that is unsafe, or taking care of tasks in inhospitable locales or terrains. Third, they might do some tasks better. I recall watching part of an auto assembly line where a part had to be attached with some force at an awkward angle. There’s no way that a worker, no matter how skilled or diligent, could do that with consistency day-in and day-out; hence, a robot.

And now we have software robots, or bots, or chatbots. Again, they are conceptually similar: they perform routinized tasks. Increasingly they do almost as well as do humans. While I’m not aware if anyone has subjected them to the Turing Test yet, it’s only a question of time. This was the famed computer scientist Alan Turing’s test for whether a computer displayed “intelligence” or not; roughly, if a person couldn’t tell that she was being spoken to by a computer, because it sounded sufficiently like a human, then it was said to pass Turing’s Test, a significant test now among those who study the philosophy and meaning of intelligence.

In all these cases, where robots are improving the operations of existing businesses, there is the potential for productivity improvement. An individual worker, aided by a robot, might be more productive. So-called total factor productivity (the weighted average of productivity attributed to labor, capital, as factors of production) is likely higher. However, often it’s at the expense, if you will, of using less labor, and more on that below.

Of course, all these types of uses of robots should immediately trigger ideas for entrepreneurs in their “normal” businesses, even if they ostensibly have nothing to do with creating something in robot-space. Even the most mundane businesses are affected. A company I co-founded, Chaipoint, has just launched a chai-robot, see, to offers tea-on-the-cloud as it were! It’s a robot that makes tea – not from tea-bags or the rather terrible tasting pre-mixed tea powder used in office chai machines, but straight from tea leaves, brewed the way one would by hand. What could be a more mundane daily ritual than drinking chai, especially in tea-drinking countries like India? I’d wager than any business can think of similarly crazy ideas!

But it goes further than even that- expose your employees to robots. For this, be inspired by the fact that robots increasingly are being used by individuals, in schools, and homes for example.

Lego Mindstorms and Sphero are simple robots that kids can program and use rather speedily. The latter got a boost in awareness when President Obama stumbled onto it on a college campus in Boulder, Colorado. Why can’t we train employees with robots, get them to re-imagine their in-office roles with the aid of the futuristic machines?

The possibilities are energizing!

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