By Greg Mills
Siri, Apple's new sassy voice controlled digital assistant may actually be the foundation for the future for Apple. Robotics is a very broad technology that has a dramatic future and fits into what Apple does best. Science fiction and movies have popularized robots, but also given us a comic book concept of what in actuality is very real and not so human in most cases.
We remember futuristic movie robots from outer space like Gort, the robotic galactic cop seen in "The Day the Earth Stood Still." We love Mr. Data, the human simulation or android robot that has endearing humanity developing in his positronic brain.
The reality is more like robotic arms with spray guns attached that paint cars perfectly without taking a break. Robotic vacuum cleaners sucking up dust in set patterns on the floor without a human operator, a lawn mower run by a computer are less than practical robots actually sold but never popularized by consumer demand.
Cars are developing artificial intelligence and voice recognition features. Some very smart cars are being tested with cool features coming soon. Mix Siri with a car and you get the idea. Siri comes on with an announcement, "We will need to buy gas soon, there are some gas stations ahead with good prices if you get off at exit 45 and then go left." Cars are mechanical devices that already are seeing computers integrated. That area of technology is an Apple strong suit.
As human labor becomes more costly, the technology of industrial robotics becomes relatively more affordable. The advantages of robots are that they don't call in sick as often as humans, they don't go on strike and they can replicate complicated sequences of mechanical actions faster and with more precision than humans.
Foxconn's CEO recently threatened the minions of his Chinese assembly workers who were being too darn human, getting sick from chemicals, committing suicide and demanding more pay with being replaced by robots. That ought to fix em, he figured. The truth is, robotics in assembly lines have been replacing humans for years.
That a $3 a day Chinese worker could ever be replaced by a robotic device is more telling about the future of robotics than industrial relations or the cost of manual labor in China.
With Apple's strong suit being thinking outside the box, hardware that interacts with amazing software, simply the fixing on the notion of moving into robotics is all that stands between the Siri of today and Apple selling Mr. Data Androids, 20 years down the line.
The logical place for Apple to start is building iPhone, iPad and Mac robotic assembly lines in the US. Apple has a problem with a large portion of its money being stuck outside the US due to stupid tax codes that tax the heck out of earned money they bring home.
Part of the problem with our balance of trade deficit is that manufacturing Apple devices is so expensive in the US. It cost Apple about $7 to assemble an iPhone in China and about $60 to assemble the same iPhone in the US with human labor. If robotics could reduce the cost of product assembly here in the USA to match the cost of assembly in China, Apple products could have the "Made in the USA" sticker on them again. The economic consequences of that are tremendous. Some hiring would certainly occur as even a roboic assembly line requires humans who manage and keep it running smoothly.
Rather than buying the robotic assembly line, Apple could develop a Lego type modular system of robotic parts and control them with Apple brand differential controllers, software and computers they design for that purpose. There isn't much a pair of human hands can do that robotics can't replicate. Apple could use such systems for their own purposes and also sell the robotic devices to other companies that have similar assembly problems.
Beyond getting into robotics to solve their own industrial product assembly issues, further down line, some killer Apple consumer robotics products would certainly get launched. To me, it is much more in line with the "think different" mantra of Apple to get into robotics than for Apple to launch an Apple brand HDTV. With whatever cool added features, a TV set is still an expensive but commodity item at the end of the day. High margins are not part of the landscape in the TV manufacturing industry. That is why Apple sells Apple TV devices, they add the cool Apple technology to any TV and Apple stays out of low margin products.
Mixing Apple's emerging artificial intelligence expertise with a growth industry such as robotics makes perfect sense to me.
But that's Greg's Bite.