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Twentieth-century science fiction writers have been extremely successful in describing new technology which has subsequently become reality. One area of such writings has been in relation to robots. These machines first appeared in real life in manufacturing environments such as car assembly plants. Their expansion into other roles was delayed, however, due to the requirement of advances in areas such as micro-chip memory storage capacity, more powerful software programmes and the use of AI. These requirements are now being met and as a consequence robots now represent an area where emerging technology is resulting in machines offering significant potential as aids to humans in a diversity of roles (Bibel 2014).

One important constraint in the process of developing more effective robots is that these machines have tended to be solitary creatures, carrying out their allotted tasks with single-minded purpose. This is reflected by the fact that to date, most robotics research has focused on building individual, autonomous machines. However the era of the lone robot may be drawing to a close. This is because researchers have started to explore the possibilities of social machines capable of working together with minimal human supervision. In theory, collaborative robots hold enormous potential. They could augment human workers in high-risk situations like firefighting or search and rescue or boost productivity in construction and manufacturing (Wright 2012).

The healthcare sector is one of the priority areas requiring increased use of robots. There is a growing need to stabilise the costs of caring for the elderly in the face of population ageing, patient surgery and patient recovery whilst in hospital. In relation caregiving, researchers are developing social robotics to supplement or even replace human caregivers. These personal robots are created to act in any residential premise, such as at home and in nursing homes. Over time robot carers can be expected to become part of standard healthcare service provision (Kachouie et al. 2014).

Robots designed as caregivers are required to have the ability to interact like humans with their patients. Carrera et al. (2009) proposed that robots for elderly people can be broadly categorised into two groups. One group comprises the ‘rehabilitation robots’ which focus on physical assistive technology and are principally not communicative. Examples include smart wheelchairs, advanced artificial limbs and exoskeletons (Mittal et al. 1998). The second group comprises ‘assistive social robots’ which can be divided into two-subgroups, namely service robots and companion robots. Service robots are used to support basic tasks of independent living, such as eating and bathing, mobility, navigation or patient monitoring (Graf et al. 2004). Research on the development of companion robots has proved that these machines have the capability to enhance both the health and psychological well-being of elderly people (Wada and Shibata 2007).

There is growing interest in enhancing safety and improved medical outcomes from surgical treatments. A recognised aspect of surgical treatments is that errors do occur within the operating theatre. Causes of such errors include team instability due to lack of familiarity between nurses and surgeons, lack of resources, distractions and poor communication. These factors increase the likelihood of instrument-count discrepancies caused by retention of surgical instruments in a patient’s body along with disposables such as sponges and towels (Cartheyn et al. 2003). Robotic scrub nurses under development are able to deliver surgical instruments to the surgeon by being able to understand the hand gestures and verbal requests from humans. These robots can also reduce the possibility of surgical instruments being retained within the patient’s body by undertaking an accurate, thorough and timely tracking of instruments in use during the operation (Mithun et al. 2013).

Robots are also perceived as having an important role in the transportation sector. Driverless trains have been in use for some years to link passenger terminals in several airports. This is a relatively simple environment because the train is moving along a fixed track and intervention when necessary can be based upon using simple automated signalling systems. Once the concept of the driverless vehicle is extended to roads, technological problems in areas such as navigation, data collection and decision making become significantly much more complex. It was the highly entrepreneurial Google Corporation which decided to embark on years of research to validate the viability of the driverless car. Having fully validated the technology, the car industry is finally accepting the market potential for the driverless car and is either investing in its own research projects or forming technological partnerships with high-tech companies such as Apple and Google. This growing interest has also prompted expanding the focus of robotic transportation systems to include other vehicles such as trucks and construction equipment (Blau 2015).

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