On Jan. 25, 1921, Karel Čapek’s play “R.U.R.”—short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”—premiered in Prague. It was a sensation. Within two years it had been translated into 30 languages, including English, to which it introduced the word “robot.” Čapek’s vision of unwilling slaves of humanity destined to rise up and destroy their makers has shaped our view of both automation and ourselves ever since.
In 2019, 373,000 industrial robots were sold and put into use, according to the International Federation of Robotics, a not-for-profit industry organization that conducts an annual, global robot census based on vendor data. That number has grown about 11% a year since 2014, to a total of 2.7 million industrial robots in use world-wide. Industrial robots—descendants of the Unimate robot arm first installed at a General Motors factory in 1961—are the kind common in manufacturing, performing tasks like welding, painting and assembly. They work hard, but they’re not very smart.
Also in 2019, 173,000 “professional service robots” were sold and installed, according to the federation. That number is projected to reach 537,000 units a year—a threefold increase—by 2023. These are the kind of robots businesses use outside of manufacturing. They perform a wide variety of functions, including defense, warehouse automation and disinfection in hospitals.
These robots tend to be much smarter, equipped with advanced software, sensors and Wi-Fi or other forms of connectivity. And instead of being hidden away in factories like industrial robots, they can generally do their jobs alongside people, instead of in walled-off areas where humans are forbidden to go.
“The main difference between automation today and what we had 50 or 60 years ago is that we added software,” says Mr. Mountz. Just as critical was wireless connectivity—Wi-Fi was new at the time—and off-the-shelf sensors, like the black-and-white cameras used in the original Kiva robots, he adds.
According to a historical analysis conducted by Mr. Muro and others at Brookings, recessions such as the one we’ve been in are the times businesses are most likely to replace humans with automation. This happens because, when recessions hit, revenue falls faster than wages. The result is that automation goes from a nice-to-have to a perceived necessity for cash-strapped companies.
robot revolution was already well under way, only it was happening behind closed doors, in places like factories and warehouses. What’s different now is that the robot revolution is happening in public, and is therefore unavoidable, even personal. In our homes, our places of work, on our streets, in our skies, robots are becoming a part of our everyday lives as they have never before.
A century after Čapek introduced the word robot to the English language, the one thing real-life robots have yet to do is run amok and destroy us all, as they did in his play and in countless works of science fiction since. But there’s one thing he did get right: As their ranks swell, and as they take on more tasks in more places, robots are, in their own way, taking over.