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Reflecting on the year that was and what comes next for robotics

This is always a strange week for us. Save for the occasional disastrous patent dispute, things are (thankfully) almost uncannily quiet in the week separating Christmas and New Year’s Day. You see a lot of reflective posts go up during this time, not only because the calendar year is coming to a close, but also because it’s a bid to get some eyeballs on stories during the deadest news week of the year.

Thanks to my taking a bit of time off, we’ve spent most of the past month and a half reflecting on the year’s biggest trends and offering some predictions for what’s to come. Given that we’ve heard such things directly from people far smarter than me, I won’t take too much of your time (or time off) retreading that ground.

[A version of this post first appeared in TechCrunch’s weekly robotics newsletter Actuator. Subscribe here.]

August marked a year since Amazon announced plans to acquire iRobot in a $1.7 billion deal that some analysts suggested could give the retail giant a big head start in consumer robotics in much the same way Kiva boosted its industrial ambitions a year prior.

I don’t know that anyone expected such a massive deal to simply skate past regulators — particularly with all of the heat Amazon has received for privacy concerns and noncompetitive practices over the last decade. At the same time, I don’t think too many of us assumed that we would be barreling into 2024 with this big, open question mark.

The deal has already been greenlit by a number of governmental bodies, but the process has felt drawn out at every step. If you’re a regular Actuator reader, you likely already know my feelings about outside scrutiny of business practices (I’m generally pro), but I expected something definitive by now.

Amazon will be just fine, of course, but I can’t imagine this waiting game has been easy on iRobot, which underwent two rounds of layoffs in mid-2022 and early 2023. Just ahead of the announcement’s one-year anniversary, iRobot confirmed that it was lowering its purchase price by 15%, while raising $200 million in debt to “fund its ongoing operations” — debt that Amazon will take on if the deal does, in fact, close.

A month ago, EU antitrust regulators voiced the following concern: “Amazon may have the ability and the incentive to foreclose iRobot’s rivals by engaging in several foreclosing strategies aimed at preventing rivals from selling RVCs on Amazon’s online marketplace and/or at degrading their access to it.”

Amazon countered that its iRobot already faces “intense competition,” adding that its massive resources would lower prices and “accelerate innovation.”

The European Commission has given itself a Valentine’s Day 2024 deadline to reach its final decision.

Humanoids were a huge story last year for many reasons. The first — and most obvious — is that switch they flip in our collective lizard brains. It’s somewhere in the realm of the uncanny valley, fueled by decades of science fiction. As a species, we’ve experienced generations of job evolution, displacement and replacement at the hands of technology, but seldom — if ever — have those hands so intentionally resembled ours.

However you feel about how this whole thing will play out, you have to be hard-hearted to not empathize with worker concern that technologists are building their literal replacements. There’s very little of the abstraction we’ve grown accustomed to. Imagine for a moment that the Model T was a big, metal horse on wheels and maybe you can get a bit closer.

The second big reason is the sheer number of companies that debuted their humanoid systems this year: Figure, Apptronik, 1X and Tesla, to start. Once again, try to put yourself in the place of someone who doesn’t follow this stuff day to day, and you can begin to appreciate some of the feelings that bubble up when your news feed is suddenly flooded with these stories.

Much like the rise of generative AI, if you weren’t following the industry’s progress, it was probably a massive shock to the system to suddenly have the ability to generate an image, story or song with a short prompt in a text field.

We will, of course, be debating the efficacy of the human form factor for years to come, but we’re at least reaching the beginnings of real-world trials. Whether they succeed or fail, Amazon’s Digit pilots are bound to have a profound impact on how we look at the category going forward.

Sick of hearing about generative AI and LLMs? I’ve got some really bad news for you, folks. The hype around the technology’s role in robotics is only growing. Top research institutes are pursuing the link  between GenAI and robotics, and plenty of companies are beginning to put these concepts into practice.

Generative AI will revolutionize the way robots think, learn and listen. And as CSAIL’s Daniela Rus recently told me, it’s also going to have a big impact on how robots are designed. But don’t get annoyed, get excited. More so than any other aspect of robotics in 2023, the conversations around generative AI feel like we’re on the cusp of something big.

Robotics funding skyrocketed in 2021 amid a global pandemic that caused many employers to take a good, long look at automation. On the other hand, 2022 was the category’s second-worst year of the past five. Only 2020 was worse, with all of the turmoil caused by the early days of COVID-19.

New numbers from Crunchbase that cropped up early last month pointed to another dip for 2023. The initial boost of interest in automation was bound to regress a bit, of course, and things were only accelerated by an extremely cautious VC market as the economy struggled.

Investments were at $2.7 billion by early November, down from $5 billion for the whole of 2022 and $9.1 billion for 2021. I have yet to see a full tally as this year draws to a close, but things were tracking to look a lot closer to 2020’s $3.4 billion.


Image Credits: Brian Heater

Seeing as how I promised you a short one this week, and we’ve already gone over 1,000 words, I’ll wrap things up with the CliffsNotes version. Here are some of the things I’m currently keeping an eye on as we head into 2024:

Low- and no-code robotics. Everyone seems to agree that the learning curve is a big barrier to wider adoption. We’re going to see a continued proliferation of software platforms designed to get us there.
Truck loading/unloading. Those shipping containers get extremely hot and extremely cold. Loading and unloading is extremely physically taxing. Systems that can automate that aspect of the warehouse are poised for a big 2024.
The continued ascent of agtech, construction and healthcare systems.
Killer robot legislation. Following up last week’s conversation with Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, concern over the domestic use of weaponized robots could lead to similar bills being introduced across the U.S.
Multipurpose is greater than general purpose. This is probably just wishful thinking on my part, but I would love to see the conversation around “general purpose” systems cool a bit as we discuss the far more practical world of multipurpose robots.
Nearshoring. More wishful thinking for me, but the supply chain crises of the last few years have led many companies to reconsider where their products are manufactured and assembled. For that trend to take hold, automation will have to be a centerpiece.

That’s it for this week. Next week, we can really discuss CES in earnest. For now, have a happy, healthy new year, all. Thanks for reading.


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