A new age of office robotics

In the past year, Cybera has acquired two remote presence robots to allow its staff in Edmonton and Calgary to interact with each other in a more dynamic way. In the process, our employees have unknowingly become public advocates for the use of interactive robotics in everyday offices.

Last week, one of Cybera’s robots was loaned to Mawer, a Calgary-based investment management firm with 100+ employees. Equity Analyst Kara Lilly describes the experience.

Robot Nikki'€œCan you open the door for me?'€

The sight was bizarre. There was our Research Assistant, Nikki, requesting for someone to open a door she couldn'€™t get through, except Nikki wasn'€™t actually there. Her robot was. Nikki was operating a robot from her location in Northampton, England, where she was working remotely. The little robot had a screen to show Nikki'€™s face, but no arms (hence the request). It was all a part of an experiment we were running. With our team becoming increasingly global, we are always looking for new ways to keep ourselves connected and, on this particular day, we were trialing a robot.

Experiencing '€œRobot Nikki'€ was surreal for our team. We have all seen movies about robots working with humans, but this was the first time most of us had interacted with one like that in real life. Based on what we understand about the trends concerning robotics, it is unlikely to be our last.

Robotics in our daily lives may sound sci-fi, but this technological movement is very real. As McKinsey reports in Disruptive Technologies: advances that will transform life, business and the global economy, the advances we are witnessing in robotics have the potential for major impacts over the coming decades. With the progress that has occurred in artificial intelligence, machine vision, sensors, and motors, robots have become increasingly capable of complex tasks. They are far more adaptive within chaotic human environments. At the same time, the cost of robotics is decreasing. This means that it is easier to integrate robots into our businesses, processes and daily lives.

For investors, robots create both opportunities and threats. Robotics represent the kind of disruptive technology that has the potential to totally upend existing business models. Companies that use such technology may benefit from important quality, cost and speed advantages. Economies that adopt it may also see productivity gains; but, as with computing power, it remains to be seen whether and how such gains will manifest. Of course, however robots eventually get implemented into our lives, labour markets are bound to be impacted in some way.

What does this mean for investors? For starters, it means that investors will need to pay attention to how the companies in their portfolios are responding to these changes. Not all businesses will be directly impacted by robotics, but many will. Management teams that fail to respond to such developments may find themselves at a disadvantage. Investors must be aware of this issue so they can have informed discussions with management teams.

More broadly speaking, '€œRobot Nikki'€ is also a good reminder that technology is almost never a sustainable competitive advantage. The robot that Nikki was using will very likely be replaced by new models that do the job better. One need only look at the epic rise and fall of companies like Nortel or RIM to see how previously dominant technologies can fall from grace. It is very rare that our team hangs our investment thesis on an advantage based on technology. In our experience, it is simply not wise to bet against the pace of human innovation.

P.S. For an entertaining example of now obsolete jobs, check out: 10 Jobs that No Longer Exist.

Cybera’s robots were created by the California-based technology company Double Robotics.