This week Lenovo had their Tech World 2020 event and showcased that they are a very different company than they were a decade ago. Their geographic breadth and product reach are off the chart when compared to their US domestic competitors. They appear to have taken Dreamworks, once the leading reference account for the old HP, which never happens once brands are connected as strongly as HP and Dreamworks brands were. And it looks like it was the HPE side that dropped that ball (The new HP is still a close partner with DreamWorks).
They also showcased a very rich set of personal technology products using foldable screens and embracing advanced digital assistants for both home and work. Also, they showcased one of the most aggressive levels of diversity and inclusion I’ve yet seen in an event.
But, the thing that caught my eye was their first self-developed robot. As HP did with their early entry into 3D Printing, I think this will dramatically change the competitive landscape as a result.
Let’s explore that this week.
Robotics the Future of High-Tech
If you think about the progression of personal technology, we have been dancing around robots for years. But outside of industrial use and toys, we’ve been waiting for a robotic platform that could provide general use capability. We did get Baxter, which tried to be a general-purpose replacement for a person, but it was too generic for technical use, so it failed. The technology currently exists. We can build intelligent, focused robots; autonomous cars are the most potent example, but a general-purpose human replacement is likely still a decade or more out.
A tech company’s first real effort to create a focused robot was HP with its 3D printer line. Sadly, they didn’t get credit for the robot part because 3D printers were already a separate category, but HP worked to transform manufacturing by eventually creating a 3D printing plant. That too is well off into our future.
What the market needs now is an AI-driven robotic solution that can be easily trained and reconfigured as needed for various customer needs on the manufacturing line or even later on by the user.
And that is pretty close to what Lenovo just announced.
The Lenovo Robot comes very close to the ideal offering I’ve laid out above. It is mobile, blending an intelligent robotic arm to a composite wheelbase that can navigate tight spaces (I wish they made wheels like that for cars). It is a DL implementation in that it can initially be trained by a human doing the task, and then it can alter that programming to improve observed quality over time. It can then share what it learned with other robots, so the entire family of robots, both in the field and yet to be shipped, can advance at the same pace.
While initially targeting painting, specific parts like automotive parts could be scaled up for larger jobs and reconfigured to do different jobs. While this would require it to be retrained, the process would be to have a remote operator do the related task via remote control the first time. Then the robot would operate on its own and still train other robots similarly configured.
While initially focused on manufacturing, converting this robot for healthcare, home assistance tasks, specific maintenance tasks, or even some military operations should be far more straightforward than coming up with more specialized focused designs.
In short, Lenovo learned from Baxter’s failure. Instead of creating something that fell short of a general-purpose human replacement, they came up with a far more reasonable robotic solution. This solution doesn’t try to look or act human; it tries to be the best potential general-purpose robot in the market.
We have been anticipating a wave of robots ever since they were showcased at the World’s Fair in the 1930s, but it seemed unlikely we would see anything significant until mid-decade. But the COVID-19 pandemic is speeding everything up, including robotics. Lenovo just jumped on the bandwagon with a credible design that could evolve into the intelligent multi-use robot the market is demanding. While still short of Robby The Robot’s (Forbidden Planet) promise, its actual utility would be, outside of speech (which could be added with digital assistant capability) arguably more useful.
In the end, there is a good chance we’ll look back at Lenovo’s 2020 Tech World and see it as a definitive moment when AI-driven multi-use robotics was born.