Robotic Advances: COVID-Spurred and Otherwise
It’s not surprising that the COVID pandemic has gotten us all thinking about technology that can take the human element out of day-to-day “personal” interactions. There have been some very interesting, new adaptations of existing Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, not the least of which is the introduction of robotic baristas and bartenders
There’s even robotic COVID testing. No thanks on that one for me, by the way. It already feels like that swab is going somewhere no human should ever venture. But if robots can be used in heart surgery, I suppose we can trust them with nasal swabs.
Cobots (collaborative robots, designed to perform functions alongside human beings) are supporting the COVID fight in other ways too – like decontaminating healthcare and travel facilities and performing temperature screenings. They’re also taking on more roles on factory floors, allowing for fewer workers in close proximity.
Another fascinating area of AI that’s evolving throughout this period is autonomous (i.e. driverless) transportation and shipping in all of its manifestations – land, rail, air, and sea. As we’ll see below, in some cases these advances can be attributed to COVID-driven applications. In other cases, they’re a continuation of the steady progress that’s been underway for many years.
One if by road
Demand for ride-hailing services plummeted during the pandemic, with Uber and Lyft ridership down between 70% and 80% this past summer. After all, these services still can’t remove the human element of sharing proximity with a driver whose hygiene and health are unknowns. No doubt that was an impetus for Uber’s exploration of autonomous driving through its Advanced Technology Group. But given its dire financial situation, it’s not surprising that Uber reportedly plans to sell that division.
Has COVID in fact spurred the technology related to autonomous road vehicles? It’s hard to make that case. The time horizon, if anything, continues to push further out.
Two if by rail
Autonomous rail transportation systems by their nature are much easier to manage since movement is limited to forward and backward along a defined track. It’s no wonder we’ve already seen these autonomous systems in place for many years in small, self-contained areas such as the airport terminal connection “trains.”
Autonomous mass rail transit through cities is not far behind and long-distance rail will follow shortly thereafter.
Have these autonomous rail trendlines been accelerated by COVID? Again, likely not since they don’t ease any COVID spread concerns except for the safety of the driver/conductor who is often well-separated from the subway/metro passengers anyway. And in the case of autonomous long-distance rail transportation, the public, in general, isn’t ready for driverless Amtrak, so all the focus has been on freight transportation, which generally is done with a very small crew on board.
Three if by air
When it comes to air flights, it’s very important to distinguish between self-flying aircraft with pilots on board and autonomous, unmanned aircraft. “Autopilot” has been around for a long time, even as it’s getting more and more sophisticated.
Other breakthroughs in autonomous air traffic, however, have been very apparent recently as we see new COVID-related applications for fixed-wing and rotor drone technology. During the pandemic, drones have been put to use around the world to apply disinfectants in large areas, surveil for distancing compliance, deliver emergency medical supplies, and even detect the virus – albeit from an uncomfortably close range of 10 meters. Retailers are utilizing drones more and more as the last link connecting the supply chain to the consumer as more and more people avoid crowds and order online.
Four if by sea
Similar to air travel, the story is mixed along the same delineation between advances in auto-piloting vs autonomous ship captaining. It’s doubtful we’ll see public acceptance of autonomous passenger ships anytime soon, but there have been tremendous strides bringing us closer to autonomous cargo shipping. Some of the most exciting innovations include:
- Shipping companies have been testing a collision-avoidance system by Orca AI to supplement existing radar systems with better proactive warnings and corrective guidance.
- A Norwegian chemical company is developing an electric, autonomous container ship for use in a limited region off the coast of that country.
- Next year, IBM and ProMare, a non-profit ocean research organization, will send the solar-powered Mayflower Autonomous Ship across the Atlantic with self-contained AI and navigational equipment … and no crew.
How Soon?We’re all anxious to see autonomous transportation expand beyond the small incremental steps we’re seeing now. It seems like we’ve been hearing that self-driving cars will be commonplace “in a few years” for a few decades now. COVID has pushed what technology we have into new applications. But it has not dramatically driven the development of the underlying technology. Regardless, as autonomous transportation systems improve, they’ll be incorporated into more and more vehicles of all types. Like it or not, autonomous transport and shipping will increase. But they’ll need to be part of a larger, interconnected network of manned, unmanned, automated, and autonomous systems on land, in the air, and on the seas. And the average person will need to embrace the fact that autonomous, AI-driven transportation systems can be safer than those with human drivers and captains.
Robotic Advances: COVID-Spurred and Otherwise
I was thoroughly intrigued when I found out the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado was offering a degree in asteroid mining.
Yes, the idea of extracting water, oxygen, minerals, and metals from an asteroid sounds like science fiction to most people, but it’s not that far away. In fact, Colorado School of Mines’ newly launched “Space Resources” program will help people get in on the ground floor.
After thinking about the proactive nature of this approach, it became abundantly clear how backward thinking most colleges have become.
When colleges decide on a new degree program, they must first recruit instructors, create a new curriculum, and attract students. As a result, the talent churned out of these newly minted programs is the product of a 6-7 year pipeline.
For this reason, anticipatory-thinking institutions really need to be setting their sights on what business and industries will need 7-10 years from now.
The Risk-Averse Nature of Education
When Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen released his best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, his core message that disruptive change is the path to success, was only partially embraced by higher education.
While many were experimenting with MOOCs and smart whiteboards, changes in the subject matter of their courses still evolved at the traditional pace of discovery.
This is not to say colleges are not innovative. Rather, the demands of today’s emerging tech environment are forcing business and industries to shift into an entirely new gear. And that most definitely includes our academic institutions.
From a management perspective, it’s far easier to oversee a contained system where all variables are constrained. But during times of change, we tend to give far more power to the “unleashers,” who are determined to test the status quo and release ideas and trial balloons to see what works.
For this reason, managers and creatives often find themselves on opposing sides, and the winners of these warring factions often determine what we as consumers see as the resulting ripples of change.
Offering Pilot Programs
When Facebook bought Oculus Rift in March 2014 for $2 billion, the job boards went crazy, as there was an instant uptick in the demand for VR designers, engineers, and experience creators. But no one was teaching VR, and certainly not the Oculus Rift version of it.
Colleges have a long history of being blindsided by new technologies:
- When eBay launched, no one was teaching ecommerce strategies
- When Myspace launched, no one was teaching social networking
- When Google launched, no one was teaching online search engine strategies
- When Uber launched, no one was teaching sharing economy business models
- When Apple first opened their App Store, no one was teaching smart phone app design
- When Amazon first allowed online storefronts, no one was teaching the Amazon business model
- When YouTube first offered ways to monetize videos, no one was teaching it
Since most academic institutions are only willing to put their name on programs with long-term viability, the endorsement of half-baked agendas does not come easy. However, that is exactly what needs to be done.
Colleges can no longer afford to remain comfortably behind the curve.
52 Future College Degrees
As a way of priming your thinking on this matter, here are 52 future degrees that forward-thinking colleges could start offering today:
- Space Exploration – space tourism planning and management
- Space Exploration – planetary colony design and operation
- Space Exploration – next generation space infrastructure
- Space Exploration – advanced cosmology and non-earth human habitats
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – policy and procedural strategies
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – advanced genetic engineering systems
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – operational implementations and system engineering
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – ethical regulation and oversight
- Smart City – autonomous traffic integration
- Smart City – mixed reality modeling
- Smart City – autonomous construction integration
- Smart City – next generation municipal planning and strategy
- Autonomous Agriculture – robotic systems
- Autonomous Agriculture – drone systems
- Autonomous Agriculture – supply chain management
- Autonomous Agriculture – systems theory and integration
- Swarmbot – design, theory, and management
- Swarmbot – system engineering and oversight
- Swarmbot – municipal system design
- Swarmbot – law enforcement and advanced criminology systems
- Cryptocurrency – digital coin economics
- Cryptocurrency – crypto-banking system design
- Cryptocurrency – regulatory systems and oversight
- Cryptocurrency – forensic accounting strategies
- Blockchain – design, systems, and applications
- Blockchain – blockchain for biological systems
- Blockchain – large-scale integration structures
- Blockchain – municipal system design strategies
- Global Systems – system planning, architecture, and design
- Global Systems – large-scale integration strategies
- Global Systems – operational systems checks and balance
- Global Systems – governmental systems in a borderless digital world
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - drone film making
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – command center operations
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – municipal modeling and planning systems
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – emergency response systems
- Mixed Reality - experiential retail
- Mixed Reality – three-dimensional storytelling
- Mixed Reality – game design
- Mixed Reality – therapeutic systems and design
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – designer baby strategies, planning, and ethics
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – surrogate parenting policy and approaches
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – organic nano structures
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – clone engineering and advanced processes
- Artificial Intelligence – data management in an AI environment
- Artificial Intelligence – advanced human-AI integration
- Artificial Intelligence – streaming AI data services
- Artificial Intelligence – advanced marketing with AI
- Quantum Computing – data strategies in a quantum-connected world
- Quantum Computing – quantum-level encryption and security
- Quantum Computing – quantum computing implementation strategies
- Quantum Computing – AI-quantum system integration
More so than any time in history, we have a clear view of next generation technologies. Naturally, we’re still a long way from 100% clarity, but for most of the technologies listed above, the shifting tectonic plates of change can be felt around the world.
Without taking decisive action, colleges run the risk of being circumvented by new types of training systems that can meet market demands in a fraction of the time it takes traditional academia to react.
The ideas I’ve listed are a tiny fraction of what’s possible when it comes to emerging tech degrees. Should colleges stick their neck out like Colorado School of Mines and offer degrees that may not be immediately useful? Adding to that question, how many college degrees are immediately useful today?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.