The robot renaissance: How human-like machines are reshaping business

| McKinsey Direct

Humanoid robots have been a science fiction staple for more than a century. Indeed, robots owe their name to Czech writer Karel Čapek, who introduced the term in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots. Čapek’s robots were synthetic humans, not machines, and he derived the term from a Czech word for serf or servant.

Most of today’s robots don’t look, act, or think much like people. Programmable robots have been used in industrial applications since the 1950s and an estimated 3.5 million units are in operation today, with 550,000 more deployed every year.

So far, robots haven’t had a big impact on the human workforce either. The global economy employs roughly 1,000 people for every robot. The Republic of Korea, which has the world’s highest robot density, still employs 100 times as many humans as robots.

As humanoid robot hardware becomes cheaper, and the software more user friendly, could robots fill critical automation gaps and transform the economics of labor-intensive and labor-constrained sectors?

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