Robotics and AI trends that are changing the world in 2020
By Bill Studebaker, President & CIO, ROBO Global
Holiday parties are just around the corner, which means it’s time for me and everyone else on the ROBO Global team to brace for the onslaught of questions from friends, family, and distant acquaintances about the future of robotics and AI. “Are robots really going to steal my job?” (Thanks for the cue up, Andrew Wang.) “When will self-driving cars be safe?” “Is Alexa spying on me?” “What’s the coolest new robot?” The queries run the gamut from compelling to downright bizarre, but there is a lot to say about the current trajectory of robotics and AI. Interestingly, some of the most important innovations—the ones that are poised to drive the most astonishing changes to our everyday lives—rarely come up in conversations over cocktails. Here are just some of the trends in the market today, including the fascinating and the mundane, that are likely to rise to the top in the year ahead:
- Smart speakers and voice technology
Smart speakers may be the most ubiquitous application of AI to date. In the US, 120 million households already have smart speakers, and the momentum is continuing to build. According to the latest report from Canalys, global shipments of smart speakers increased 45% year-over-year to 28.6M in 3Q19, with Amazon claiming one in every three speakers sold. But while Amazon may be the obvious gorilla in the space, it is by no means the only player in the field. In China, Alibaba increased sales of its smart speakers by 77% year-over-year in 3Q, with Baidu and Xiaomi close behind. And while Google is struggling to boost sales of its Google Home speakers (sales, unfortunately, decreased in 3Q19), the widespread use of Google Assistant is likely to help Google to catch up with the rest of the pack. Case in point: Walmart Voice Order now enables customers to add items to their Walmart shopping carts using simple voice commands through Google Home and Siri. Another straggler in the space is Apple, but watch for Apple to rise in the ranks as the company is actively bolstering its smart speaker team and focusing resources to aggressively expand the capabilities and sales of its HomePod in the next 12 months.
As smart speakers and the voice technologies that enable them to continue to push ahead, the long-term impact for consumers and investors alike is likely to be momentous. Amazon is already in the process of bringing Alexa into cars, and hotels are quickly jumping on the bandwagon, too. What’s to come: new capabilities designed to serve the elderly and others with physical limitations, new prediction capabilities, and the ability to tackle more tasks for humans. (And if you really are concerned that Alexa is listening in on your most personal moments, this article from the Washington Post can shed some light on the subject.)
- Edge computing
While “edge” computing is not easy to explain with a martini in hand, it basically refers to every type of computing that doesn’t take place in a core data center or in the public Cloud. This can include everything from mobile computing to the Internet of Things, or IoT. This type of computing and data storage is considered at the “edge” of the network, and the goal is to improve response times at the edge. IoT plays an important role because IoT devices are now becoming smart enough to create mini networks and share resources with other edge devices. Why are edge computing and the fast data processing it enables so important? In the age of robotics and AI, it can quite literally mean life and death. In healthcare, edge computing can accelerate the search for a cure for any number of diseases, or find that needle-in-a-haystack among millions of patient files to diagnose and treat one patient’s rare condition. At the same time, autonomous vehicles that require edge computing could put passengers in danger without the nearly instantaneous data processing it provides. It’s no wonder big tech players like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google all see edge computing as the next big computing race.
- AI-based software
AI has been called the electricity of the 21st century, and collective intelligence is undoubtedly its most valuable fuel. This reality makes the ability to collect that data—and to use it to enable AI in drones, cameras, and other devices without connecting over the cloud—vital. The race to deliver is on. Intel’s new chip for on-device AI debuts in 2020. That and the company’s latest programming tools and software for running AI are likely to push established leaders in the space like Nvidia and Qualcomm forward as well.
- Autonomous retail
The idea of autonomous retail took root a decade ago, with kiosks appearing in airports and shopping malls where consumers could purchase electronics, cosmetics, and more without any human interaction. Amazon took that idea to the extreme, and when the first Amazon Go store opened its doors in Seattle early last year, it kicked off a global trend. Shoppers use a phone app to enter the store, and as items are taken from shelves, cameras and sensors add them to the shoppers virtual ‘cart’ and the buyer’s account is automatically charged. The system streamlines the retailer’s supply chain automatically, ensuring real-time product fulfillment. And while this may sound like a vision straight out of the Matrix, the idea has caught on. Amazon GO opened its 18th store in May 2019, and similar stores are popping up everywhere. In China, Alibaba’s Tao Café and JD.com’s JD Daojia use face-recognition software to recognize and charge its customers. In the US, Sam’s Club has added ‘scan & go’ locations nationwide that allow customers to select items in-store, pay using an app—and even find an item’s location within the store. Watch for autonomous retail in one form or another to open in most metropolitan neighborhoods in the year ahead.
- AI Crowdsourcing
If two brains are better than one, why not use the power of one hundred, one thousand, or even 8 billion brains to advance the capabilities of AI? Not to be confused with crowdfunding (though there are certainly AI startups that could use this as well!) a growing number of companies are leveraging crowdsourcing to collaborate and pool knowledge—and to push their research and development processes into hyperdrive. Chinese AI chipmaker Horizon Robotics and South-Korea’s SK Telecom are working together on a crowdsourced HD map data collection and positioning solution that will be integrated into vehicles for map data collection across the globe. RoboTurk is a crowdsourcing platform designed to teach the AI computer systems and robots how to mimic human thought processes and actions by using large-scale data collection via crowdsourcing platforms that enable robots to quickly learn and imitate tasks. Intrigued? Learn more about the power of crowdsourcing here.
- Quantum Computing
In case you missed it, Google made what is arguably one of the most important announcements in decades regarding the advancement of computing power. Google said that it has achieved “quantum supremacy”—meaning that its researchers have cracked the code for making calculations at nearly unimaginable speeds, and faster than any current supercomputer. (You can read the full article here.) Soon after the announcement, IBM issued a rebuttal, stating that it could simulate Google’s results—and in a mere fraction of the time—though it has not yet attempted to make good on that claim. While this is just the beginning of what’s to come, it is equivalent to a tiny spark that is capable of creating a massive forest fire. Will quantum computing change our world in 2020? No. But the progress that is likely to take place in the coming year will most certainly serve as one more stepping stone toward capturing the promise of quantum computing and, ultimately, disrupting every industry that relies on the power of computing. A future that includes practical quantum computing boggles my mind. To learn more, check out the New York Times article, Why Google’s Quantum Supremacy Milestone Matters.
Too sick to get to your family doctor? Sick and tired of trying—and failing—to schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider? You’re not alone, which is why telemedicine is one of the fastest-growing sectors in healthcare. According to Business Insider Intelligence, the number of physicians on Doximity, (basically a LinkedIn for doctors) who self-reported telemedicine as a skill, doubled between 2015 – 2018, and more than 500 million virtual care visits are expected next year. ROBO Global index member Ping An in China already supports more than 600,000 personal care visits per day, and US-based Teladoc now has over 37 million members across its client base, including leading providers like Aetna, United Healthcare, and several of the Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, as well as 40% of the Fortune 500 companies, thousands of small employers, and more than 300 hospitals to date. The future of healthcare won’t be at the hospital—it will be on your laptop, phone, or other smart device.
AI- and robotics-fueled advancements in healthcare are rapidly building the foundation for widespread access to affordable longevity. Precision medicine is reducing the trial and error associated with matching a patient to a drug. Robots are quickly becoming indispensable assistants for eldercare and patient care. VR and AR are used to train doctors and surgeons—and even enable an expert thousands of miles away to assist a critical surgery. Sensors inside the human body are enabling medical imaging and diagnostics at a nanoscopic level. 3D printing is making it possible to build new body parts when our own are damaged or failing. AI is being used to cut the time to develop a new drug from a decade to days. Human genome research has emerged as a leading industry where none existed before. The seemingly endless list of innovations focused on prediction, prevention, and the eradication of disease promise better, cheaper healthcare—and increased longevity—for all. Learn more about the investment opportunity of healthcare disruption here.
Suddenly my drink is empty, and I’ve just barely scratched the surface. I could go on and on about the future of brain-machine interfacing that is merging humans with AI; how the convergence of 5G with satellite networks is unleashing the power of the human mind; how collaborative robots (cobots) are transforming manufacturing, healthcare, retail, and more; the promise of quantum computing and the wild potential of IBM’s new 53-qubit quantum computer; how the sensor revolution is transforming everything; and why the rise of China as the epicenter of AI and robotics innovation is more important than ever. But there’s fruitcake to eat and wine to be poured, so I’ll leave you with this:
As we head into a new year and a new decade, I have no doubt that the opportunity for investors in robotics, automation, and AI (RAAI) is bigger than ever. And because the space is evolving at a never-before-seen pace, the best gift you can give yourself this holiday season is to invest in companies across the entire RAAI supply chain—including companies of every size, market cap, geography, and sector—like those in the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index and the ROBO Global Healthcare Technology & Innovation Index. 2020 is sure to bring changes that even the top analysts and experts can’t possibly see coming, so let’s raise a glass to the promise that robotics and AI holds for our lives—and our livelihood—for decades to come. I’ll drink to that!