There is an idea, grounded in economics and useful as a frame for understanding recent history, that goes like this: Technology doesn't change the world until companies stop using it to do business more efficiently and start using it to create brand new business for themselves -- in essence, to grow.
Steel wasn't just better wood, after all, and gas-powered vehicles weren't just better horse carts.
"IT boomed when solutions could be scaled," explains Remy Glaisner, CEO of MYRIA Research and a proponent of this view. "It became 'How do I grow my business thanks to IT?' and not so much 'How do I run HR or filing more effectively?' That's when it really took off."
MYRIA Research advises technology clients, and its specialty is telling non-robotics clients how they can get in on the rapid growth of the robotics market. The firm's very existence is an indication that robotics, like IT before it, is entering an accelerating point on a steepening growth curve.
"Two important things haven't happened yet in robotics," says Glaisner, who will be speaking at the industry event RoboBusiness in San Jose on September 24. "First, there are no leaders in the robotics industry. Some companies are starting to make noise, but there's certainly no Google, no Facebook."
Glaisner's view is that robotics is too young, too diffuse, and too hype-driven at present for such an entity to exist. (Again, see early IT, which really is a handy corollary.) It's still pioneer days, when a whole bunch of very clever people are trying lots of different things, many of which are bound to fail.
"The second thing that hasn't happened yet," he continues, "is that if you look at most solutions on the market, they're trying to address operations. They want companies to ask, 'How do I save money, reduce costs, with these robots?'"
But the drivers of the robotic revolution ultimately won't be asking those questions. Instead of trying to reduce workforce and increase manufacturing efficiency, two common tropes in the industry, startups in the robotics space primed to make the biggest splash will advertise their ability to grow an enterprise's overall business.
You can already see one clear example in the logistics industry. When Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012 for $775M, its largest acquisition to date, most of the commentary focused on the internet retailer's push to reduce ballooning workforce costs in its massive network of warehouses. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that that wasn't the goal at all. Same-day delivery, which Amazon now offers free to some Prime subscribers, would be virtually impossible without Kiva's automated logistics solutions. By all indications, the same day service has been a massive success for Amazon, driving hordes of new customers to sign up for Prime.
Glaisner predicts the industry will undergo a rapid transformation in the next three-to-six years as more robotics companies offer solutions to grow businesses instead of improve operations.
Interestingly, this may be a credible counter-punch to the most alarmist views that robots are destined to displace workers, that they're harbingers of economic doom. The takeaway, if you follow Glaisner's line of thinking, is that it's short-sighted to try and assess the impact of a transformative technology by running simulations against a snapshot of the market today.
Put another way, today's robots might be eating some of the pie, but tomorrow's robots will probably be really good bakers.