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From Shop Class to Factory Floor, Robots are Everywhere

Boston Dynamics' new humanoid Atlas robot takes a stroll in the snow.Boston Dynamics' new humanoid Atlas robot takes a stroll in the snow.
Boston Dynamics' new humanoid Atlas robot takes a stroll in the snow.Boston Dynamics

I had the joyous experience of touring a middle school recently—it’s something parents do—and after math, English, and gym class we went into a room that looked familiar to me from my childhood, the shop class. Except I misunderstood the purpose of the work benches and tools. This was a robotics class. How very 21st century, I thought.

Wikipedia tells us that robots have been around a long time and that the word itself dates from 1921. (Its origin is Czech.) We also know robots have been the norm in automobile factories for years and even have reigned as canine pets, courtesy of Sony, since 1999. (Webvan and Aibo were born in the same year. Think about it.)

Now comes word that robots are entering a new phase of life, so to speak.

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IDC reported Wednesday that worldwide spending on robotics will nearly double by 2019 to $135.4 billion. (A question: Does IDC publish reports on the backward-looking accuracy of its forward-looking predictions?) Two nuggets from the report stand out. First, IDC says a crossover effect is coming to robotics. In other words, spending on software, services, training, and the like soon will exceed revenue from devices themselves. The research firm also flagged the two biggest areas of robotics expansion: healthcare and “process” manufacturing. The latter refers to making things robotically following a recipe, like beverages or drugs. That’s pretty cool.

Robots are everywhere. My current TV passion is the frenetic USA Network series “Mr. Robot,” which refers to a hacking organization, not a gadget. It is so real you won’t want to use your computer again. Oh, and robots are on the verge of having rights now, just like pets, according to Barb Darrow’s delicious report.

This is the future of robots.

We’ve come a long way from shop class.