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Robotics in Israel – is there a revolution on the way?

The robotics field is flourishing, thanks, in part, to considerable technological enhancements, alongside a leap in the quality of the basic essential technologies, and significant cost reductions. The robotics revolution will radically change our lives in terms of health, recreation, employment, transportation and more. Will Israel take a leadership role in this field?

This chapter was written in cooperation with the Technology Division of the Israel Innovation Authority. We thank Prof. Schiller, chairman of the Israeli Association of Robotics, for his contribution to this chapter.

Performing accurate surgery of the spinal cord and brain, allowing the disabled to see the world at eye level, delivering aid and supplies to people trapped in a disaster area, weeding of agricultural fields without spraying, pool cleaning, lawn mowing, and border patrol without endangering human lives – all these are examples of tasks that can be performed by the robots developed by Israeli industry and academia, and sold worldwide. These are just some of the manifestations of an emerging technological revolution in the developed world, which is expected to affect almost every aspect of our lives: medicine, nursing, agriculture, defense, industry, household and education.

Robotics is a special field, as it is one of the technological fields that besides evoking great interest, also carries a considerable emotional charge based on our sense of “prior familiarity.” As children, many of us laughed at the confused C-3PO, the humanoid robot character from the Star Wars movies, memorized Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” followed the adventures of WALL-E, and developed an aversion towards future robots in the form of the Terminator. Robots were invented by writers and filmmakers years before engineers tried to create them in practice (and the argument is that many researchers in the field of robotics got interested in the subject when they were kids, watching movies such as Star Wars). Accordingly, some of our perceptions about robots rely on fiction, so that even an absolute layman in the field feels that they have a long-standing familiarity with robots.


What is a robot? There are several correct answers…

Robotics is a wide and abstract concept, and therefore the answer to the question "What is a robot?" is not clearly evident, even for experts. The word “robot” derives from the word “robota” which means “hard labor” in several Slavic languages. The current meaning of the word “robot” was introduced to the public by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play Rossum's Universal Robots, published at the beginning of the previous century.

Traditionally, the robot is considered a tool or a machine that replaces a human worker for certain operations. The first robots were industrial robots that replaced human jobs defined as DDD – Dirty, Dangerous and Dull. The robots performed a monotonous sequence of actions in a predetermined order, and most of them were placed in a fixed point on the production lines without the ability to move. Lack of intelligence was the main limitation of the robots that were functioning within a structured environment with a known and limited set of rules. The proliferation of robots around the world began in the 1960s: first there were hydraulic or pneumatic-based robots with analog electronic control systems, mainly in production lines. From the seventies onwards, there were robots digitally controlled by PLCs (programmable logic controllers), and their capabilities expanded with the growth of computing power. Today, the number of industrial robots is estimated at 1.5 million units worldwide.

The development of digital control provided robots with a variety of constantly growing capabilities in many different industries. Nowadays, the new players are service robots, which are defined simply as autonomous machines that perform tasks for people or equipment that do not have industrial uses. This category includes, for example, robots for military applications, cow milking robots, robots for medical applications, and many others. In 2014 alone, the number of service robots sold estimated at 4.7 million units[1].


Why now? The technologies are improving and the R&D prices are decreasing

Today, there are indications that we are on the verge of a revolution in the field, and robots might finally begin to realize the hopes or the fears of many. Why now? Well, robots are complex machines that depend on multiple technologies – hardware and software – to operate properly. Significant progress is required in the quality of these technologies, as well as a decrease in R&D costs, in order to transform this technological field from belonging only to giant corporations, into one where thousands of entrepreneurs and small companies can explore exciting new directions. It seems that when it comes to robotics, we are just at the beginning of this era: the sensors are getting better and cheaper, broadband communication has become standard, and the artificial intelligence and the computer vision research are booming. As a result, it is much easier and cheaper to build and develop robots, as well as to improve existing robots based on established and accessible technologies. Today, a robot with two arms and a very simple programming interface costs only tens of thousands of dollars, and the price is expected to continue to decline. The price – the amount of sensing and computing power that can be purchased for a given budget – is the most significant aspect in the development of a field that combines hardware and software. In addition, the open-source culture has found its way into the community of robot developers as well, which are now working together on a Robot Operating System – one of the standard programming interfaces to transfer orders for robots.

One of the most powerful portents of the approaching revolution is the activity of giant commercial corporations in the field. Companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Intel have recognized the potential of the field, and they invest in self-development or acquire leading robotics companies. For example, Amazon is investing in the development of robots for storing, and ground and air transportation, while Google has invested billions of dollars in developing an autonomous (driverless) vehicle. The interest these companies are expressing in robotics is indicative of the huge market potential that characterizes this field. Accepted estimates expect the global robotics field to increase from the current USD 30 billion to USD 80 billion by 2020[2]. Today, we can only guess what a company with the capabilities of Google might make by combining its own technological capabilities with the startups it has acquired.

At the same time, technologically leading countries have identified robotics as an emerging field and have made great strides in its development. In Europe and the United States these efforts are also associated with the attempts to return manufacturing industries “home” – a trend which is possible due to lower production costs thanks to industrial robots. The most prominent countries in this field are: the United States, which is considered one of the leading countries in robotics in many applications, and it invests more than USD 50 million annually in the national robotics initiative; Japan which was back in the 1980s a pioneer in the application of robotics in industrial production, and recently launched a new robotics strategy; and South Korea – the only country where support for robotics is founded in law – which invests USD 100 million annually with the declared aim of becoming one of the three leading nations in the world in robotics. In recent years, these were joined by the European Union that has initiated a program called SPARC – a dedicated R&D program for support of the knowledge and industry development in the field of robotics, with a joint public and private investment that is expected to reach 2.8 billion Euros by 2020; Singapore, which launched an outline of its robotics strategy in 2014; and China, which also has a development program for smart production, and promotes integration of robots in manufacturing sectors.

What are the implications of this development on the labor market?

The development of impressive robotic cabilities raises many questions, particularly, whether robots will replace humans in the workplace, and what will be the consequences of such a development? These questions are part of a larger issue dealing with the effects of technological innovation on the labor market. History tells us that since the Industrial Revolution, machinery and technological innovation have actually damaged markets and existing jobs, but concurrently created new industrial sectors and jobs. For example, by the end of the 18th century many workers worldwide were engaged in agriculture, but with the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of agricultural mechanization, the number of farm workers dropped significantly, and today, only about 2-3 percent of the total workforce is engaged in agricultural production in developed countries. Of course, the employee adjustment and transition processes are not easy, and for older workers it is likely to be particularly difficult. However, at the macro level, competitive economies knew how to create markets and new occupations, which were often more rewarding in terms of interest and wages.

It seems that robots will just be a continuation of the mechanization and automation trend that began with the Industrial Revolution. Various researchers predict that in the short term we will see more and more robots working side by side with humans, while increasing their work capabilities (augmented work). In the future, the more sophisticated, independent, mobile and intelligent the robots will become, the more they will be able to replace human workers in a wide range of jobs. The advantages of this are clear: increased labor productivity; manufacturing of new products that could not be made without robots; transfer of workers from routine to more sophisticated jobs; and for developed economies – the return of the manufacturing sector that was "exported" to emerging markets with abundant cheap labor. Here, too, the price has an important influence – the cheaper robots become, the more SMEs will be able to incorporate them into their production processes, and thus their impact will be greater.

In the future, sophisticated autonomous robots will be able to replace human workers in actions requiring judgment as well. Such a development could have a negative impact on the economy, if the countries fail to create enough new jobs for the human workforce replaced by robots. Indeed, a number of researchers suggest that the pace of technological change today is so fast that the markets will not be able to close this gap and create new jobs, so the net effect on the labor market will be negative. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee suggest in their book The Second Machine Age that employees with inadequate or low human capital may be particularly impacted by technological changes in the near future. Other scholars argue that this phenomenon is already happening, and predict that unemployment and lower wages for young people in the developed world are symptoms of this change.

This poses a huge challenge for the economies of the 21st century. On the one hand, it is impossible and undesirable, in our opinion, to stop technological progress, and hence, its impact on our lives. On the other hand, we believe that all sectors of the economy – government, academia and the private sector – need to be aware of these processes and prepare for them in advance. One can assume that in the near future autonomous cars will replace us as drivers, giving us some more free time while we are commuting to work, or just allowing us to rest in the car while it is driving itself. However, while for most of us this will be a welcome development, it is expected to severely harm taxi drivers. The better the economy is prepared for this development, by carrying out re-training and guiding processes, the better the chance will be to reduce the negative consequences of this development on the labor market. We may surmise that such preparations would channel humans to jobs for which they have a comparative advantage: jobs directly related to technological developments, jobs that require sophistication, customization and creativity, or the kind of work that requires compassion, empathy or use of moral and ethical judgment. In the long term, because the economy of Israel is small, relatively flexible and already possesses a favorable bias toward technology, it might benefit from these processes. 


Robotics in Israel: a modest industry with a worldwide reputation

As stated, robotics is a multidisciplinary industry based on the use and development of various technology building blocks, including  sensor related sub-systems, elements  and components (for various types of sensors, such as optics, navigation, motion, etc.); mechanical or hydraulic or electric actuators (motion controllers) for the operation of arms or moving assemblies of the robot; communication between sensors and the controllers; cognitive software systems with multiple decision making capabilities; artificial intelligence and more. Combining these diverse areas requires systemic integration and a high level of system engineering, alongside man-machine interfaces where needed. Currently, Israel excels in the development of each of these building blocks for various uses. However, it is possible to imagine how these building blocks will also serve as the foundation for the development and expansion of the robotics industry in Israel.

Today, Israel possesses well-established and proven robotics capabilities in the fields of defense and security. The main growth engine in the field of military robotics in the country has been unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have been developed in Israel since the 1970s. Until recently, Israel has focused on the development and manufacture of a variety of UAVs – from small drones weighing just a few kilograms used for ground forces' short-range missions, to strategic UAVs weighing up to five tons. The commercial value of the UAV field in Israel, which belongs mostly to the defense industry, is about a billion dollars a year, and Israel is the world's biggest UAV exporter alongside the United States. In the last decade, unmanned naval vessels and ground vehicles were also developed, and the challenge associated with their making was much more complex. In addition, walking and load carrying robots are also being developed to serve on the battlefield (robotic mules). Alongside the military sphere, Israel also possesses a wide array of paramilitary robotic capabilities: bomb-disposal robots, serving the police force to dismantle and neutralize suspicious cargo and bombs, terrorist-fighting robots, such as “snakes” that serve in terrorist attacks and can cross barriers and penetrate buildings for observation and reporting, and others.

In addition to robotic security applications, Israel is the home of several leading robotics companies leading in a variety of fields, including healthcare, which demonstrated proven capability in developing robots for back surgery, walking assistance to the disabled, nursing and aiding in the distribution of medicine; domestic consumption, where Israel is leading in the development of lawn-mowing, pool cleaning and home care robots; logistics and transport that has seen the application of robotic technology for storage and automated retrieval; industrial production, where automated production lines are developed; and agriculture, where robotic automation is developing in such areas as irrigation, pond and marine cage fishing, animal feeding, agricultural fieldwork, sorting and packing.

It can be said that today, the Israeli robotics industry is relatively modest in scope, but its reputation is worldwide. These are sophisticated companies, leaders in their fields, which are growing at a rate of tens of percent a year, and that export the bulk of their output. The foundations for competing and leading the robotic industry are in place.


So why isn't the robotics industry in Israel taking off?

The enormous potential of the growing robotics market and the excellence that Israel has achieved in putting the relevant robotic building blocks together raises the obvious question: why is this industry growing so slowly? Several field-typical obstacles inhibit further growth:

  • Low availability of multi-disciplinary skills: to manufacture advanced robots, the R&D project must be supported by a variety of engineers with different specialties. Such interdisciplinary specialization is uncommon and is available mainly in big companies. Fostering of the islands of excellence in the building blocks of Israeli robotics will help the industry acquire the capabilities required for overall manufacturing.
  • Increase in the level of complexity: there are two growing trends in the field of robotics that indicate an increase in the level of complexity involved in manufacturing robots. The first is the development of autonomous robots that can make decisions independently, in accordance with the stimuli from the environment, and the ability to overcome many difficulties they encounter. The second is the development of robotic swarms, which are robots of various types that operate in complementary and not identical missions, in synchronization and collaboration.
  • Financing difficulties: development cycles in the robotics industry are long, very complex, highly risky and utilize expensive technology. These conditions require large investments for long periods, and this deters entrepreneurs and investors from entering the field. The challenge of financing is also a barrier: it limits the complexity of the kind of robot that can be developed in a short time, pushing companies to focus on very practical and narrow niches.
  • Increasing competition: as a result of ongoing defense budgets cuts across the world, and due to the growing presence of China and the United States in the market, there is increasing competition that threatens Israeli leadership in the field of military robotics (eg. in the field of UAVs).


What’s next?

In order to ensure its place in the vanguard of the robotics revolution, Israel must meet two main objectives. First, it must foster islands of excellence that already exist in Israel, and strengthen the connection between the companies that already specialize in the various building blocks and academia, to allow the development of complex multi-disciplinary systems of high quality and sophistication at the forefront of the global industry. Second, the robotics industry in Israel must utilize the vast business potential in the rising trends in the field, such as combining of different realms of robotics (use of military technology for commercial purposes or entertainment, such as drones) or developing robotic swarms.

These objectives require preparation of technological infrastructure, as well as guiding of the existing basic technologies to the field of robotics. In the last two years, we have witnessed a number of initiatives attempting to integrate the activities of various industry players, such as the initiative of the Forum for the Research and Development of National Infrastructures and the Ministry of Science for the establishment of the Applied Robotics Research Institute. Another initiative is the establishment of a robotics think team which is led by the Israel Innovation Authority (former OCS) that is expected to submit its conclusions by mid-2016.

The above-mentioned team's preliminary findings indicate that the level of the multi-disciplinary complexity required, as well as the volume of investment in R&D and the accompanying risk factors, preclude the mobilization of private capital investment in this field in early-stage R&D. Therefore, there could be a market failure in this sector, requiring government intervention to bridge the gap between the new and existing support tools offered by the Israel Innovation Authority, similar to the support it provides to the biotechnology sectors.

One of the directions outlined is state support for the consortium of companies intended to develop the first commercially advanced robotic capability, which combines a variety of players with complementary technological capabilities. In addition, the Israel Innovation Authority conducts search activities for foreign players (state or corporate), which have the desire to cooperate with the Israeli ecosystem, based on innovation characteristics and its technological capability. This, and other such activities, is critical for extracting the full potential of the existing technological base in Israel, and for ensuring that Israel will not miss the next technological revolution, and will be among its leaders.