Life and thoughts

The age of robots is coming

We are beyond the point of fearing Skynet. The fabled Terminator company already exists, but not under that name, and we won’t recognize it until much later. Robotics and artificial intelligence is moving at a pace beyond belief. The potential of this technology is exciting and terrifying in one. Just as the original robots of the industrial age were transformative, so too is the new wave and an interesting sphere for investment.

Science fiction comes to life

The traditional face of robots with artificial intelligence already exists and is becoming increasingly advanced. Sophia the world’s first robot citizen, produced by Hanson Robotics (a private company), uses a programmed system of rules and behaviours to hold conversations and generate ‘ideas’, and has even been able to express that as the difference between her and humans as creative, emotive beings1,2. She even has a “little sister” in development with plans to market her as a toy for children to learn coding by the end of 20193.

By contrast, Boston Dynamics’ Atlas the humanoid robot isn’t holding conversations but can do parkour while Spot the quadruped can do the “running man”4,5. Boston Dynamics are owned by SoftBank Group Corporation (TYO:9984). Robot agility is improving – not completely human yet – but growing and the implications of this are endless.

Consider what this might mean for care of humans if you have both agility and artificial intelligence in a world where finding careworkers is both at a shortage and also underpaid. Or where humans are increasingly less interested in mundane and heavy tasks. There is a world of good possibility in these developments – along with more frightening implications.

Medical robots

One such positive development to be considered is improvements in medical surgery as robotic movement becomes more finessed, more human. Such as, increasingly perfected versions of the groundbreaking Da Vinci system of robotic surgery, designed by Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ: ISRG)6.

Another exciting application of robotic technology is the Yale Omniskin, developed by a research team at Yale led by Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio which ‘wraps around soft bodies’ and can manipulate them to move in certain ways. NASA is working with the research team for uses in space but you could also see how the technology could be adapted to benefit patients with paraplegia or other movement disorders7. Similarly, MIT Biomechatronics has developed intelligent prosthetics for amputees with bionic skins and neural implant systems to allow for tactile feedback between user and limb8.

Robotics is also changing the face of endoscopies with robots that can be ‘driven’ to the exact site a doctor wants to inspect and even manage surgical repairs or wound cauterization. One such company in this sphere is Medineering GMBH, owned by BrainLAB AG8.

The medical gains from robotics are countless, but perhaps we should be more cautious on robotics when it comes to other parts of life.

Robotic homes

We have freely invited artificial intelligence into our homes – think Google Home (NASDAQ: GOOGL), Amazon Alexa (NASDAQ: AMZN), Apple Siri (NASDAQ: AAPL) – and are starting to seek out robot automation for chores. For example, you could consider iRobot’s Roomba (NASDAQ: IRBT) or Samsung’s Powerbot (KRX: 005930) the very early precursor to Rosie from The Jetson’s. Though not available in Australia, Dyson is also on to its second generation of robot vacuum, the Dyson 360 Heurist9.

The thought of removing the mundane jobs of our lives is attractive.

Smart homes are becoming the buzzword de jour. The Simpsons, always quick to comment on trends and culture, even featured their own ‘Ultrahouse 3000’ in no less than a Treehouse of Horror episode. We are gleefully, willfully, running into the open arms of robotics without considering the implications. (The other side of this is our love of all things cyber, you can read more here.)

Terminating the future

Many prominent technologists and scientists have warned about artificial intelligence and robots, but the late Stephen Hawkings says it best.

Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.”10

Are we resting on our laurels, trusting in Asimov’s Three laws of robotics11?

For reference, this is the concept that robots must not do harm to humans, must obey humans and must protect their own existence provided this does not conflict with the other two laws.

Perhaps we are.

Only last year, KAIST, a South Korean university was reportedly developing artificial intelligence for military weapons and more than 60 AI and robotics experts called for a boycott against them12. Effectively, they are creating killer robots.

We can’t assume they are the only ones who have thought of this application. In fact, the US military are developing robot military technology too – from soldiers to tech to manage detecting gases or defusing bombs13.

A number of countries have called on the United Nations to ban fully autonomous weapons (aka killer robots), 26 in total. Australia opposes the ban with defense experts arguing it isn’t in the best interests of this country given the lack of a clear definition of fully autonomous weapons14.

Perhaps killer robots will be the new Cold War.

Investing in the robotic world

Separate to the fears of killer robots, there are obviously many positives to be found in artificial intelligence connected with robots and there are many companies developing this technology.

I am a writer and not a financial expert so you should do your own research and get your own advice on whether any of these investments are suitable for you before deciding to invest.

Most people will be indirectly exposed to robotics by virtue of having large tech companies as part of the share component of their superannuation – many of which would be already developing into the robotics space or at least watching closely what parts of the technology they may need to incorporate in the future.

For those looking to invest directly, most options are internationally based. Established technology corporations like the Apples and Samsungs of the world can be an option for exposure to robotics while still being exposed more broadly to other revenue streams, along with medical device companies like Intuitive Surgical.

Robotics tends to be very niche and more companies in this space are in the small and micro-cap domain (think more risks than large-cap companies) or are in many cases, private companies so not publicly listed on global stock exchanges. One Australian example of a smaller listed company is FastBrick Robotics (ASX: FBR) which is using 3D printing technology to transform the construction industry15.

The managed fund and ETF route can be an easier way for Australian investors to gain wide access to the robotics space, given most large players are listed internationally. There are a range of managed funds with international exposure investors could look at. There are also two robotics ETFs listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. These are:

  • ETFS ROBO Global Robotics and Automation ETF (ASX: ROBO) launched in September 2017 which tracks 88 small and mid cap companies with the bulk located in the US, Germany and Japan16.
  • BetaShares Global Robotics and Artifical Intelligence ETF (ASX: RBTX) launched in September 2018 which tracks 44 companies with the bulk located in the US, Germany and Switzerland17.

To the future and beyond

Robotics and artificial intelligence will play a key role in the way our lives work in the future. While we can look forward to benefiting in a number of ways from robotic developments, we should be paying attention to what is happening in this field from more than just an investment perspective. We need to be questioning the ethics and motivations behind every robotic development and ready to challenge those that put us on a dangerous path we cannot return from. The age of robots is coming.