Introduction: Rise of the Autonomous Machines

An in-depth look into the future of automation

A century ago Czech playwright Karel Capek coined the term “robot” while writing a piece of apocalyptic science fiction that went viral by 1920s standards.

“Capek’s play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one,” famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once remarked, “but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed that the word ‘robot’ not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written.”

From sci-fi to reality

Fast-forward to today, and robots have leaped from the pages of science fiction to our everyday lives. It may have taken 100 years, but we are now seeing, in reality, some of what these writers dreamed up in their heads (though, hopefully, minus the part where robots exterminate the humans, of course). 

In the seven years that we’ve invested in seed-stage, data-fueled companies, we’ve witnessed tremendous advancement in the capabilities of robots, which in turn has led to the rapid maturation of the robotics market.

Uncaged

Over the decades, we’ve labeled a lot of things a “robot.” 

Take the robotic arm that’s ubiquitous in car manufacturing plants, for example. To us there’s very little difference between these “robots” and rudimentary machines like vending machines and escalators, which have been around since the 1800s. Far from autonomous or intelligent, they are pre-programmed to do a limited number of very precise repeatable tasks. There is zero learning happening or recognition of their external environment.

Because of their limitations, these early “robots” have been confined to cages to protect workers from injury and programmed for a limited number of predictable and very precise movements. That’s no longer the case.  

Rather, today’s robots work alongside people, in dynamic environments of all types, aided by advanced optics, sensors and AI to detect and react to human movement. 

Automated machines

These advancements have opened the world to robots, or automated machines, and the places where they can be deployed.

No longer confined to cages, they now work alongside people in far more than just factories. They travel in busy hospital corridors delivering supplies to doctors; across office complexes doing maintenance and security; through hotels vacuuming among guests; on farms picking strawberries alongside farm hands; and overhead delivering medical supplies. Of course, they’re still optimizing operations in factories, manufacturing facilities and other industrial settings, too.

Implications

In this series, we summarize what we’ve learned so far in our journey backing the data-fueled revolution, to provide founders and funders alike with our perspective on how we got here and, most importantly, where we go from here. 

In Part 1 of the series, we’ll explore the global trends that are converging to make this new wave of automated innovation possible and highlight how companies are using autonomous machines to solve an array of new problems in industries as diverse as e-commerce, healthcare and heavy industry.

In Part 2, we’ll explore the impact, effectiveness and limits of the robots as a service (RaaS) business model that’s proven effective for early stage robotics companies.

In Part 3, we’ll summarize our key learnings about the new demands placed on robotics companies looking to get into this space.