Expect an economic boost from the household robot — more upgradeable than the iPhone: Don Pittis

Expect an economic boost from the household robot — more upgradeable than the iPhone: Don Pittis

For the economy, the great thing about the portable telephone was that it was a gift that kept giving. 

The first brick-sized device that I used as a reporter in Hong Kong was a money spinner, but that was just the beginning.

In the more than 30 years since, mobile phones have kept getting smaller and smarter, creating a seemingly endless cycle that practically forced self-respecting consumers to keep buying a new one. But there are signs that economic cycle may be coming to an end.

“Amazon.com Inc. is working on another big bet: robots for the home,” say technology reporters at the business news service Bloomberg.

Perhaps the device — that will reportedly be tested in Amazon employees’ homes by year end — will be able to perform basic chores or act as a mobile companion.

Rather than robot slaves as we’ve seen in HBO’s Westworld and the Bladerunner movies, consumers will become slaves to buying the latest robot.

According to some analysis, the very best consumer product is one that is addictive. Opium and tobacco have been lucrative; the customers keep coming back for more.

The psychological need to have the next great consumer good has also proved to be great way to keep consumers shelling out. It is a subject that has been well studied.   

Humans who could afford to do so have long been slaves to fashion. But the introduction and upgrading of new consumer electronics where this year’s model knocked the socks off of last year’s, has cleverly appealed to both fashion and function. It takes a lesson from the automobile trade both in creating and satisfying a popular need.

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Getting a 5G smartphone, for example, may not feel worth the outlay of another thousand dollars.

At the development stage, when everybody wants one, new products are a technological and economic driver, leading to leaps in innovation and high-paying jobs as companies compete to make each upgrade indispensable.

Robots are now a staple of industrial production. Rich countries where labour is expensive lead the way, but even China with its vast population of workers is switching to cheap, reliable robots.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, industrial robot density in 2017 was 74 for every 10,000 workers and growing strongly.

While companies funded by industry and the military often do the heavy lifting in early tech, just as we’ve seen with computers and smartphones, the move into popular consumer robots will transform the technology into something even more useful and accessible. If Amazon can convince us we need a personal robot the way we needed personal computers and personal smartphones, robot density would begin to soar.

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“Advances in computer vision technology, cameras, artificial intelligence and voice activation help make it feasible for Amazon to bring its robot to the marketplace,” say the Bloomberg reporters.

Maybe Amazon will not be the one to popularize the personal robot. But whoever does, unlike the flat screen TV or even a smartphone, the potential for incremental improvements will be enormous.

The process of moving from a household robot that can greet you at the door, chat and play your music to something as futuristic as what you see in HBO’s Westworld is a curve much steeper than for previous consumer products. It will make for a very long stream of increments. 

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The hard part for Amazon, will be getting Vesta’s first foot in the door.

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter and a ranger in Canada’s High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC’s business unit.

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