Lighting, Automation and Robotics

In his “Forward Thinking” column in the February issue of LD+A, Don Peifer, vice president of innovation at Acuity Brands Lighting, explains why automation may not be such a bad thing for the lighting industry. An excerpt follows here:

Giant robots are descending on my neighborhood. What sounds like the opening line of the latest Hollywood block buster is actually real. My neighborhood in Mountain View, CA, sits adjacent to one of the many Google campuses here. The giant robots I speak of are the fleet of self-driving vehicles that spill out into our suburban streets every morning and roam—scanning, sensing, communicating. The sight of a robotic car is so common, I no longer notice. The driving is good. In fact, it is better than good. If my 6-year-old is playing in the street and a human driver comes around the corner, I’m running to assist. If it’s a Google car, a simple call out will do. The question I have during these exchanges is not if we will see this technology scale but when.

According to experts, not only will we see a proliferation in robotic cars, but a major American job generator—long-haul trucking—is primed to be replaced in the next 10 years. In Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford sets up the scenario. The potential to improve safety is the Holy Grail. For the companies that dispatch fleets of tractor trailers daily, once there is a clear reliability advantage, driverless vehicles are a slam dunk from a liability perspective. This inevitable change could eliminate millions of jobs, thousands of businesses. And according to Ford, it is not just blue collar jobs like driving that will be replaced by robots/automation. Already, we are seeing inroads in terms of automated news writing and some areas of the law. The basic tenet is that if the task is repeatable, it is replaceable.

Being lighting people, it is natural to think about our careers, and how they may be impacted. Ironically, we might be rendered obsolete by rapid advancements in machine visual perception and spatial computation that have happened recently. In other words, the reason lighting jobs may evaporate is because robots are finally learning to “see.” If we break lighting into three main categories: design, manufacturing and sales, we might get a better sense of the potential impact.

LD+A and other periodicals like it are an homage to high design in lighting. Design teams are interviewed for intent, and artistic vision is discussed. If you peel back the layers in the design process, you will see a large component is analyzing and building virtual spaces, running calculations, compiling specifications. This is a lather, rinse, repeat set of tasks that qualifies as repeatable/replaceable. And while no one would argue that there isn’t nuanced artistic vision at the heart of an inspired lighting design, the question is: Can it be done by a machine? Rules of thumb like “light the walls and hide the sources” can be done via code certainly. It gets interesting when artists start to break rules in design, but even that can be tracked, compiled and referenced in the future. Here is the bitter pill to swallow: high art is already being done by machine in other mediums—musical composition and abstract art—to critical success. Question is: why would lighting be any different?

For those that manufacture the lighting, we can see the same elements at play. Due to SKU proliferation, we see parent designs that sprawl out into dozens, sometimes hundreds of configurations. With efficiencies of light sources and technologies rapidly changing, how we integrate these changes seems rote and can become the job of software. Same goes for compiling specification, marketing material and even filing IP.

What feels less certain, however, is whether we will lose sales jobs to robots and automation. Cut sheets don’t accurately describe quality of light; there are tens of thousands of choices for any application. A good sales person can understand design intent and communicate the value proposition of products efficiently. With the rise of virtual reality, however, we may be able to get over this roadblock by showing different products in different virtual scenarios.

Putting aside the doom and gloom message of a jobless future, it is worth asking how lighting technology might free us from the mundane, where might we go, and, more importantly, how might the quality of our life be affected. To date, technology hasn’t exactly kept its end of the bargain. The promise of cell phones was that our lives would be easier, but we are busier and more fixated than ever. So, what do we need to do for technology to stop demanding so much of our time and attention, and what technologies are going to make that happen? Well, fortunately for us, lighting will play a fundamental role.

A robot that is moving boxes in a warehouse, for example, needs to connect to a network because it demands access to vast databases in order to recognize the size and shape of a stack of boxes. It needs formidable computational skills to execute the command of moving a box. In order for machines to do this simple human task, we have to create a ubiquitous computing network. Computers need to be everywhere. They need to sense, they need to locate and they need to communicate. Additionally, they need to follow us from environment to environment as we go through our day—no gaps. That is where lighting steps up as the only component in the built environment that can realistically facilitate this.

First, by shrinking computers to a tiny chip set and placing them in the power supplies that sit piggy-back on every luminaire, we’ve distributed computing everywhere. Sensors are cheap, and are increasingly more integral to lighting, so we have the sensing piece. Lights are easily hooked up to a network, so we have the communication piece. And, here is the key, lighting—like no other component—is laid out in a regular, repeatable pattern. Recessed ceiling cans in homes, troffers in commercial environments, street lights, parking garage fixtures, bollards, wall packs—lighting is the super component that allows us to step and repeat from environment to environment, a nice thin line that we pull through our lives.

I’m a big believer in the adage that when one door closes, another opens. Our days of running calcs and designing a me-too troffer may be numbered, but that might be a good thing. The fact that lighting is going to be center stage in how the IoT brooms out is exciting. Giant robots are inevitable. Most of us don’t know a thing about them, but lighting, well, that’s another story.

February 2017


Don Peifer

Don Peifer

Don Peifer is vice president of innovation at Acuity Brands... More info »