As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on the future of tech and innovation. For years, artificial intelligence seemed on the cusp of becoming the next big thing in technology -- but the reality never matched the hype. Now, the changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic may mean AI's moment is finally upon us. Over the past couple of months, many technology executives have shared a refrain: Companies need to rejigger their operations for a remote-working world.
Getting products from one place to another with as little human contact as possible is becoming an imperative for businesses as retailers, warehouses and transport providers adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to minimize the risk of infections to their employees and customers. Tsubakimoto Chain Co. is seeing more demand for its sorting and conveyor systems as companies seek ways to move things around, while startup Hacobu sees an opportunity to boost use of its online platform for trucks to exchange information as they load and unload goods at warehouses, a process that's still mostly done on paper. The need for automation is especially acute in Japan, where a labor shortage was already putting pressure on companies to find ways to run their businesses with less people. Now, that transition is being spurred on by the pandemic, which has boosted online buying and raised concerns among shoppers about being infected by items delivered to their doors. All told, the market for next-generation logistics systems in Japan is set to more than double to ¥651 billion ($6 billion) through 2025 from 2018, according to Fuji Keizai Co., a Tokyo-based research firm.
New solutions to the Covid-19 crisis in the care sector are being sought by a laboratory that is opening at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Its creators are confident it is the world's first laboratory studying assisted living that researchers can use remotely. We all need help now and then, but people with physical and mental challenges need it much more, especially if they want to live independently. Real life human helpers have been the norm until now but the coronavirus pandemic has changed things rapidly and radically. Coronavirus: Robot doctor could help with future outbreakThat is why the new multi-disciplinary laboratory is aiming to create affordable technology that can support the care of vulnerable people cut off from human contact. It's not just the care that will be delivered at a distance – the lab itself will be open and remotely accessible.
Country Garden, a property developer in China, revealed that its subsidiary Qianxi Robot Catering Group (Qianxi Group) opened a restaurant complex operated completely by robots. Located in Shunde, which is a city in China's Guangdong province, the restaurant eliminates most human-to-human contact and may be a harbinger of how businesses plan to handle the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak. "Country Garden assistant executive officer and Qianxi Group general manager Qiu Mi explained that Qianxi Group has built a complete industry chain encompassing back-end supply production (the centralized kitchens) and robotic cooking alongside the operation of restaurants and the management of robots," Country Garden shared. The restaurant complex is 2,000 square meters or about 21,527 square feet, and it has 20 robots equipped to serve a variety of dishes, including Chinese food, fast food, clay-pot rice and hot pot. The menu has 200 items, but they are available within 20 seconds of ordering.
Digital health technologies are critical tools in the ongoing fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic. Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, 5G and robotics can provide valuable and innovative solutions for patient treatment, frontline protection, risk reduction, communications and improved quality of living under lockdown as the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week's AI for Good webinar, 'COVID-19: China's digital health strategies against the global pandemic,' presented different use cases from China's digital health strategy, and provided context for how AI and information and communication technologies (ICT) has supported healthcare and citizen needs for the world's most populous nation. Following the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in January 2020, China implemented a wide-reaching strategy to control and contain the virus. "With various available technologies, we [ICT engineers] can actually play a very positive supporting role in fighting the current virus," said Shan Xu, an engineer in the Smart Health Department at the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT).
Robots are likely to replace a lot of jobs in the future, but these roles are generally well-suited to automation. For some jobs -- particularly creative professions -- it'll be much harder to simply swap in a digital employee. But as a forthcoming feature film proves, it won't be impossible. According to Hollywood Reporter, science-fiction movie b will be the first to rely on an artificially intelligent actor. Meet Erica (pictured above), a humanoid robot that will take center stage in Life Productions' $70 million picture, which tells the tale of a scientist tasked with creating perfect human DNA.
From food delivery and disinfecting offices to retail services and surgeries, robots are increasingly sharing our workplaces. How are enterprises adapting to the explosive growth in robotics and robotic systems? ZDNet and TechRepublic published a PDF ebook: Robotics in the enterprise to find out. In "Robotics in business: Everything humans need to know," ZDNet contributor Greg Nichols provides an executive guide to the technology and market drivers behind the $135 billion robotics market. ZDNet's Daphne Leprince-Ringuet investigates what work will look like as robots start mingling with humans in their workplaces in her feature, "The robots are coming, and this is how they will change the future of work."
K2, the leader in intelligent process automation, announced the results of the recent Harris Poll "Accelerating Automation: How Businesses are Adapting to a Post-COVID World" survey. The survey reveals how business leaders are adapting to COVID-19, how they are preparing for business continuity in the future, and the value of automation technology to meet customer expectations. "Even before COVID-19, companies recognized the need to accelerate the pace of digital transformation. The impact of the pandemic has made it even more challenging as we are seeing close to fifty-percent of companies still using manual and paper-based processes, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage," said Carlos Carvajal, chief marketing officer at K2. "In this new work environment, there is a renewed sense of urgency for companies to accelerate the automation of their business processes to drive operational efficiency and improve their customer experience." According to the survey results, 92 percent of business leaders agree that to survive and flourish, companies must enable digital channels and process automation in the workplace.
The UK company P2i adds water-repelling nanocoatings to smartphones and other gadgets. Normally, it flies engineers to its clients' factories to identify and solve quality-control problems. That's not an option in a world where flights are grounded, borders closed, and security tightened. So in some plants, P2i now relies on a system that uses artificial intelligence to look for even the slightest defects. "Over the last four months, since the coronavirus, we've had to reevaluate how we are going to service and deploy our machines worldwide," says Neal Harkrider, chief operating officer at P2i.
Few have, but it's looking increasingly like that may change -- at least for city dwellers in dense urban environments. The footprints of companies offering autonomous mobile robots to deliver food and groceries, while still small, continues to expand thanks to pandemic-related restrictions on dining in and shifting attitudes on contactless service, and companies are jockeying to be the as-a-service robot of choice for consumers and local businesses. We've seen expanding pilot programs announced from nearly every delivery robot developer, and today we add REV-1, a lightweight, bike-like delivery robot from startup Refraction AI, which is offering free delivery within Ann Arbor from grocery store Produce Station. Refraction is the creation of two University of Michigan professors, Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan, who say they've developed a safer, more cost-effective solution for last mile logistics than anything in the current delivery paradigm. "We have created the Goldilocks of autonomous vehicles in terms of size and shape," CEO and cofounder Matthew Johnson-Roberson told ZDNet last July.