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Are the Robots Really Coming?

Robots are once again in the news, with prominent coverage in The Economist and much of the mainstream media. Some of this interest has been driven by Google’s acquisition of at least eight robotics firms, some by the rising use of drones, and no doubt some by the current enthusiasm for all things tech. But how much of the hype is really warranted? Haven’t we seen this movie before, with its sci-fi mix of wonder and fear, opportunities and job loss, and human vs machine intelligence?

Are the Robots coming?

Society tends to focus on android (human-looking) robots, but will this inclination ultimately make sense?

Opinions differ. One reason why robotics industry forecasts vary so widely is that robot definitions span everything from washing machines to R2D2. Is a driverless car a robot or just a next generation vehicle? Smart products are a vast and growing industry, but useful walking/talking robots are still pretty much non-existent. Society tends to focus on android (human-looking) robots, but will this inclination ultimately make sense?

To get past both the hype and the definitional issues, we have sought to understand how advanced robotic technologies are being applied today. In addition to the many current and potential military uses, there appear to be four main commercial application classes, each at a different stage of development:

  • Hazardous environments. The most compelling market for robots today is human safety – disarming bombs, coping with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, travelling through space and deep water, operating in extreme hot/cold climates, drone reconnaissance, etc. While limited in market size, many of these applications are now vital parts of their respective industries. They are also an important source of robotics industry funding.
  • Replacing manual labour. iRobot claims that its Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner has some 15 percent of the global market. It’s clearly the most prominent example of an application-specific consumer robotic device. But the market for labour-saving robots is still dominated by manufacturing and logistics systems from firms such as Kiva Systems, acquired in 2012 by Amazon for $775 million. Efforts to use robots to reduce labour costs in hotels, hospitals, offices, restaurants and other service industries have thus far been largely unsuccessful.
  • Healthcare. In the long run, support for the elderly and infirm may be the most important robotics application. As societies age and have fewer children, the people costs of providing therapy, support, companionship and other services are becoming prohibitive. The under-appreciated 2012 movie, Robot and Frank, gives us a good sense of where things may be headed, and the now-famous images of President Obama greeting and kicking a football (soccer ball) with the Honda-built ASIMO robot symbolize the particular importance of these issues in Japan.
  • Entertainment/hobbyists. Intel’s Jimmy project is a good example of an effort to build a friendly-looking robot (android) that is essentially a platform for apps that can help us to play, exercise, improve coordination, learn languages, sing, draw, dance, walk the dog, and so on. While this market is still almost entirely speculative and must overcome significant price and functionality challenges, there is already a promising global hacker/maker community keen to consumerize the robotics industry via open source software, standard components and 3D printing.

Does this activity justify the hype?

Overall, robotics continues to be an extremely challenging field, with many robots still too expensive and too dumb. Building smart devices that can autonomously do useful things in the physical world remains at least an order of magnitude more difficult than building general-purpose computer hardware and software systems. As there are many difficult barriers yet to be overcome, it doesn’t appear that a market tipping point has been reached.

On the other hand, the path forward is becoming more defined. The coalescence around open source software, especially the Linux-based ROS (Robot Operating System) promises increasing industry efficiencies. The robotics industry has traditionally built one-off, application-specific systems. Perhaps someday we will have an Android android – a standard hardware/software architecture that makes building robots analogous to manufacturing Android phones, but someday is still the operative word.

Additionally, Google’s recent robotics firm buying spree has significantly raised industry awareness. While there is much speculation about Google’s strategy, we like to view Google as a giant computer science lab. It is only natural that the company would be interested in challenges such as perception, motion, human/machine interfaces and artificial intelligence. From a robot’s point of view, the entire world wide web is a callable resource for information, images, navigation, translation and so on. It’s a component of a higher order system.

The bottom line is that the sci-fi vision of machines that replicate themselves, work together in groups and surpass human capabilities is still intact, but remains well beyond our current field of vision. Society probably needs to more successfully exploit today’s internet of things capabilities before the underpinnings of a pervasive and inter-connected robotics industry are really in place. But it’s not hard to see that this day will come soon enough.

Less robotics, more cobotics

Rather than trying to make robots think, act, look and perform as we do, it is often easier to find areas where machine strengths complement human weaknesses, and vice versa.

Of course, there are the usual fears about job losses, human irrelevance, machine dependency, loss of control and so on. While entirely understandable, these are issues for another day. To adopt the language of the robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon, CoBots are now often more useful than robots. In applications as diverse as chess, surgery, lifting boxes, and even basic web searching, the combination of human and machine capabilities often provides the highest level of performance and efficiency. Rather than trying to make robots think, act, look and perform as we do, it is often easier to find areas where machine strengths complement human weaknesses, and vice versa. At least for now. The second half of the 21st century may well become the real robot era, and there all bets are off.


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