Robotics and Health Care: A New Growth Market
There are truly exciting developments afoot in the field of robotics. Uncomfortably humanlike Japanese toys aside, we are starting to see more and more applications for robot technology gaining steam in the market.
According to the Japan Robotics Association, the consumer robotics market is projected to reach 24 billion this year, and balloon to 66 billion by 2025. I personally think that the long term estimate is a bit pessimistic. Bill Gates is on record for predicting that robots will be as common as computers are today.
If he is even half right, investors that get in on promising techs today will be fantastically compensated for their vision and patience in the long run. Getting in on the next wave of robotics now will be like getting in on Intel, AMD, Apple, and Microsoft in the 1980s.
Of course, the Great Recession has dealt a few temporary blows. A mainstay of the robotics industry has been assembly line machines for the automobile manufacturers. But the robotics industry is diversifying, and the automotive industry itself gives a good example of what can happen.
While automobile sales plummeted during the Great Depression, crucial improvements in automotive technology like the fully automatic fluid transmissions and hydraulic brakes were being made that would revolutionize motoring once it was all over. Once that storm passed profits and sales went up, along with share prices.
Robots are already being used for dangerous jobs that humans would rather not do. The US Commerce Department decided to fund a project with Fibrwrap Construction Inc. to develop robots that will be able to repair aging water transmission pipelines from the inside. The advantage of this method is that the infrastructure won’t have to be torn out of the ground to be repaired. But the robotics market is rapidly spreading beyond these types of dangerous applications…
Robotics is being aided by a simple economic fact: while cost of production for goods has generally declined over time, prices for services generally don’t fall quite as much. Consider that your computer costs a fraction for the performance you receive compared to two decades ago, but the technician that repairs it has generally remained quite expensive to hire.
Food prices, to give another example, have fallen steeply in real terms over the last century. This is not only due to better agricultural techniques, but also because of increased automation. From John Deere and Alice-Chalmers, from the balers to combines, mechanized agricultural equipment has drastically reduced what we have to pay to consume our daily bread. Robotics will be no different, and we are on the cusp of big changes.
In our day and age, the healthcare service industry has proven highly resistant to price declines partly because of labor costs. Improved robotic automation is one of the fastest ways to increase productivity and reduce labor costs. With the leading edge of the Boomer generation entering retirement, there will be huge financial incentives for improved robots. There will be tremendous demand for anyone that can build an affordable robot that can help with housekeeping and basic care.
Families that want to keep older members out of assisted care facilities and closer to home will look to robots for help.
I spoke with Martin Spencer, President of GeckoSystems International Corp. regarding his vision for robot assisted health care. Having spent over a decade working on his dream of a personal care robot, his company has developed unique technology that is starting to demonstrate its usefulness in marketable models.
According to Spencer, the hardest problems related to robotics in this role are software and AI related, not hardware related.
Their flagship robot, called CareBot, has advanced modular artificial intelligence and a proprietary compounded sensor system that allows it to reliably move about the typical home landscape. Unlike other robot designs that seek to reduce sensor inputs to cut down on processing overhead, GeckoSystems’ CareBot is sensor loving. This property is necessary if a viable multipurpose self-directed robot is to become successful. The main reason is because multiple inputs help to give the robot a better reading on its environment. For example, when you are driving a car, you not only receive inputs through your vision, but also through the sensing of acceleration or deceleration, engine vibration, a honk from a nearby car, or the bump of a collision. Being able to use multiple sensor feeds is particularly important in a robot that needs to move about the home on its own.
The CareBot also has an AI module that is designed for human/robot interactions.
This module, called GeckoChat, can respond to voice requests, create voice reminders, and even engage in word games with a human being. The beauty of GeckoSystems’ AI platform is that it can run on common PC hardware and operating systems like Windows XP and Linux, keeping down costs. Spencer estimates that the CareBot can pay for itself in a matter of months, due to the high cost of assisted care.
Along with my colleague Patrick Cox, I am closely investigating advancements such as CareBot, along with other opportunities in this space. These life-changing technologies will become commercialized sooner than you may think.