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The Cobot Revolution

It’s clear that millions of jobs will be taken by robots. But while some worry that robots will simply take our jobs and create mass unemployment, we believe that the effect of automation will be more nuanced. On the one hand, as it destroys jobs it will also create new, yet-to-be-discovered jobs — just as automation has done before1. And in most industries, rather than take our jobs, robots will take on our tasks2.

James Wallman, Future Gazers report

Machines will conduct more of the repetitive, routine tasks — from chopping and fetching to searching through libraries of information and making complex calculations. This will mean that we humans will move further up the value chain. We will do the tasks that machines don’t do so well, the sort of tasks that require creativity, empathy and, simply, the human touch.

So, instead of worrying about robots, we should be excited about “cobots” — robots that are colleagues, designed to work collaboratively alongside humans3.

Till recently, cobots made up only 5% of the 240,000 robots sold worldwide4. But this sector is set to grow, and very quickly: from a value of just over $100m last year to $3bn by 2020 and $12 billion by 2025, according to James Stettler, an analyst at investment bank Barclays Capital. That translates to about 150,000 cobots produced and sold in 2020, and 700,000 in 20255.

These cobots will make all businesses far more efficient. The first cobots are already helping humans be more productive. At a company called SEW-Eurodrive in Germany, for instance, cobots make it much easier for humans to build the sort of electronic drives that move your luggage around an airport and cars around the factory they’re built in. Robotic workbenches make sure everything the worker needs is to hand. Robotic arms help workers load machines or pick components out of bins.

Cobots are likely to have an exponential impact on productivity. Researchers at MIT have found that when robots work alongside humans they are 85% more productive than just humans alone or robots alone.  Cobots are also poised to make us happier — and, as Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School has found, happier workers are 12% more productive. The workers at SEW-Eurodrive, for instance, really like their cobots.

“Everything is just where I need it. I don’t have to lift up the heavy parts,” one factory worker, Jürgen Heidemann, told the Financial Times. “This is more satisfying because I am making the whole system. I only did one part of the process in the old line.”6

As well as manufacturing, cobots are set to revolutionise many industries, including retail, healthcare, hospitality, and food service: more than 70% of tasks performed by workers in the food service and hospitality sector could be carried out by machines7. There are many food and drink-preparing bots now coming out of the labs and dipping a toe in the commercial world.

There’s Sally, from California-based startup Chowbotics. She occupies about the same amount of space as a big fridge, and uses 21 different ingredients — like kale, Parmesan, walnuts, cherry tomatoes, and Kalamata olives — to craft more than a thousand types of salad. It takes Sally about 60 seconds to build a salad.

There’s Flippy, from Miso Robotics, another California-based robot startup. Flippy is a robotic kitchen assistant that uses machine learning and computer vision to cook, flip patties and then places them on a bun.

There’s quite a kitchen automation industry starting. Sally and Flippy’s robotic friends include Zume Pizza, Cafe X, Makr Shakr and Frobot which help produce pizzas, cappuccinos, cocktails and frozen yogurt. They’re cheaper than humans, complain less and offer faster service. Cafe X, for instance, can prepare 120 drinks an hour. And, thanks to no fuss, one-tap ordering and cashless payments, this can reduce waiting time to about 10 seconds.

In time, as well as handling the routine tasks that your staff take on, cobots will make the sort of decisions that managers and owners make today. You can see the early signs of this in FutureAdvisor, a US-based online investment robo-adviser service that automatically reviews and manages a person’s investments to optimise asset allocation, limit hidden fees, and improve tax efficiency. It also immediately and automatically invests any newly added cash. In the future, some of the hard business decisions will be decided by our cobot colleagues.

They might even be fun to hang out with, too. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles are working on making it easier for humans and robots to work together — they’re teaching a robot called Baxter when and how to shake hands and give a high-five8. While this could sound slightly silly, there’s an important point here. If robots are going to graduate to co-operative colleagues — that is, cobots — who are part of the team, it’ll need to feel like they belong to that team.

No matter what task these cobots will take on, two things are for sure: they won’t take tea breaks or weekends off, and they’ll cost significantly less than humans. Given how human decision-making is affected by mood, tiredness, or even just a hangover, our cobot colleagues may well make better business decisions too.  Now that the cost of cobots is coming down — to around £18,000 — they’re becoming affordable for small businesses. We believe that as the technology gets better and the cost comes down, more small businesses will “employ” cobots to make their humans more productive.

In fact, a number of factors make us believe that most small businesses will have a cobot by around 2040. What makes us say that? Consider technologies like the mobile phone and wireless internet — remember car phones and dial up connections? — and how the price came down and the quality improved, and how they spread9. Now, consider the opinions that a number of experts expressed in an article in science journal Nature called “A world where everyone has a robot: why 2040 could blow your mind”10.

By then, according to Daniela Rus, head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we’ll live in world where “robots are as common as cars or phones, a world where everybody can have a robot, and robots are pervasively integrated in the fabric of life.”

Fei-Fei Li, head of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, agrees. “In the next couple of generations,” she says, “we will see the first phase of true personal, assistive robots in the home and other human environments.”

We believe that cobots will be ubiquitous in small businesses sometime before that — that by the late 2030s most small businesses will “employ” cobots.

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1. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of Britons worked in agriculture. By 1850, it was 22%. Now the sector only employs 1.5% of the UK’s workers.
2. For more, see Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi, “Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet”), McKinsey Quarterly, July 2016. For instance, this section: “currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available today.”
3. For more, see Bonnie Christian, “The robots are coming... to play chess with your granddad”,
Wired, 9 September 2017.
4. 28 Source: International Federation of Robotics (IFR) revealed details of 2015 industrial robot sales of 240,000 units.
5. The calculation of the number of robots by Robert Gloy, “Robots v Jobs”, Technologist, 3 July 2017.
6. Heideman was talking with the Financial Times. See Peggy Hollinger, “Meet the cobots: humans and robots together on the factory floor”, Financial Times, 5 May, 2016.
7. Source: Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi, “Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet)”, McKinsey Quarterly, July 2016.
8. See Hal Hodson, “Baxter the robot brings his gentle touch to novel jobs”, New Scientist, 23 July 2014.
9. For more, read www.thefish.co/why and Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, and Andrew Gelman, “Technology SpeedupGraph”, AndrewGelman.com, 8 April 2012.
10. Declan Butler, “A world where everyone has a robot: why 2040 could blow your mind”, Nature, 24 February 2016.