Just as the internet became a tool every business in every industry can use in their operations, the same will be true of robotics and artificial intelligence. Consider them to be general-purpose technologies, meaning they can be applied to every market and every industry, very much like the internet over the past 20 years, or electricity at the beginning of the 20th century.
We are at an inflection point during which we’re seeing exponential gains in terms of performance capabilities, with rapidly declining costs that are driving adoption. Think about it. We now have computers driving cars and trucks, we have robots that can translate and interpret natural language, or even defeat chess and Jeopardy champions. We’re starting to see robotics, automation and AI spread beyond manufacturing and into all industries and markets — from logistics and warehouse automation, to healthcare automation, to food and agricultural, to consumer products. Just as the internet transformed how we work and communicate, robotics and AI are revolutionizing how we live, work and play.
Why is this happening now? Because we now have extremely powerful sensors and processing chips being produced at low cost, we have the hyperscale data centers that can process enormous amounts of data in milliseconds, and we have the infrastructure tools for fast reliable communication networks that can deliver information to intelligent machines wherever we need them.
These advancing technologies represent the pillars of a new investment thesis around robotics and AI, as well as automation and healthcare technology (health-tech).
Let’s focus on robotics and automation for starters. Robotics started in the 1960s with the introduction of the first robotics system in the auto industry, and it has grown into a market valued at more than $200 billion annually, primarily concentrated in the industrial sector. Currently, manufacturing is still the number one use for robots, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Think about logistics and warehouse automation, how companies such as Amazon deliver billions of items in two days or less; that is an accomplishment that relies heavily on robotics-driven factory automation and AI, both of which have fostered the rapid growth of ecommerce.
Consider healthcare, where robots are now assisting surgeons in advanced procedures. The DaVinci, a surgical system designed and manufactured by a Silicon Valley company named Intuitive Surgical, is now being used in more than 1 million surgical procedures per year, and that market is growing by about 20 percent annually. AI and automation are also being applied to the analysis of medical imaging and other medical procedures.
In food and agriculture, we’re seeing amazing development of new technologies, as companies use facial-recognition vision software to identify each plant and identify its needs, delivering the right amount of water and fertilizer to each. We’re also paying attention to automation in food and beverage production. Then there are the consumer applications, such as the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot.
In addition to autonomous cars and trucks nearing commercial applications, we also have autonomous drones, as well as autonomous mobile robots in warehouses and industrial facilities.
The impact of these technologies will be measured in the trillions of dollars, just as the internet is today. Large companies understand this opportunity and are starting to make big moves in terms of mergers and acquisitions and capital allocation. A recent example is Microsoft’s $20 billion offer to acquire Nuance Technologies, one of the leading companies in natural language processing.
While robotics has already started to create an enormous amount of productivity gains and transform the landscape in manufacturing, retail and logistics, we think healthcare is next in line. We are in the early stages of a profound transformation of the healthcare industry, and that’s a transformation powered by technology and innovation. One example is the aforementioned Da Vinci surgical robot, 5,000 of which are being used in hospitals around the world, assisting surgeons in performing abdominal, prostate and gynecology procedures. What’s more, AI is being used to help physicians increase the accuracy of their diagnoses when reading medical imaging results. Yet another example is 3D-printed bone implants and organ transplants. We have miniature heart pumps the size of a fingernail that can be inserted through the femoral artery. There are also wearable devices, such as those used in cardiac monitoring, and those used to continuously measure glucose levels and deliver insulin seamlessly for diabetes patients.
Perhaps the most important breakthrough in recent years is that we now have affordable gene sequencing technology that is opening the door to an entirely new medical approach for detecting diseases and developing treatments personalized for the individual’s genetic makeup. The first gene therapies have been approved by the FDA in the past couple of years, and last year, of course, the emergency use authorization for the first mRNA-based vaccines. There are also promising developments in gene editing technology to treat rare diseases and genomic-based testing to detect diseases at very early stages.
In a nutshell, there could not be a more exciting time for doctors, patients or investors in healthcare technology, especially when considering that healthcare is an $8 trillion worldwide market, and yet is one of the least digitized industries. There is a strong correlation between a high level of digitalization and an industry’s productivity gains. Highly digitized industries such as media and finances have experienced vast productivity gains over the past 10 years.
There are aging populations in many regions of the world that are driving demand and cost higher, while the healthcare system is basically focused on responding to diseases, particularly chronic diseases. In the United States, almost 90 percent of healthcare dollars are spent on chronic ailments — treating sick people as opposed to preventing diseases before they happen or detecting them at early stage. There is also a shortage of skilled healthcare workers, pointing to why automation is going to help a great deal, and why things such as surgical robots or pharmacy automation are gaining traction.
We humans also make a lot of mistakes. In fact, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins, medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Here again, technology is going to help immensely. We have a very fragmented system when it comes to the circulation of information; we have old legacy IT systems, and now we have all these digital innovations around software that are helping solve that.
You probably understand why so many investors are bullish on healthcare as one of the key domains of applications for robotics and digital technology in general.
Meanwhile, venture capital funding in AI startups has increased by sixfold since 2000. We’re hitting a new record again in 2021 based on the current pace of investments. AI will continue to be a very important area of investment in the coming years, as the vast majority of companies are already allocating an increasing portion of their investment dollars to AI.
I’ll close by reiterating that we have reached an inflection point enabled by technological progress and rapidly declining cost curves. The scene is set for AI, robotics, automation and health-tech to be strong categories of investment in nearly every investor’s portfolio.
Jeremie Capron is director of research and managing partner at ROBO Global.