2021: Robots, robots, robots

02 Mar

In an opinion piece in Scientific American five years ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said the robotics market was currently at the same stage as personal computers were in the early 1980s. Given what we know about Moore’s Law and the law of accelerating returns, things are therefore about to get really interesting when it comes to robots.

Over the past decade, our notions of what a robot is have changed. We used to think of them as these humanoid automatons, like Star Trek’s Commander Data or Star Wars’ C3P0. But as robots have gone from science-fiction to reality, they’re showing up looking more like R2D2. That’s because humanoid robots are not necessarily practical – they were simply a form idealized by their egotistical makers, who thought their own shapes were utilitarian perfection.

Things really got moving in 2002 with iRobot’s introduction of the Roomba vacuum cleaner. It was the first robot affordable to the every-day consumer that actually performed a useful task. The Roomba proved to be a hit and now other, bigger companies – including LG – are trying to get in on the burgeoning home robot market.

Out on the roads, meanwhile, Google has gotten involved with DARPA’s robot cars. I rode in one of these things a few years back and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The technology to have driver-less cars is almost here, the only question is when will we allow them?

But the change in perception of what a robot is goes deeper. We used to think a robot had to be able to move to be considered as such, but today roboticists say it merely has to be able to act autonomously. One robot guru I spoke to a few months ago, Professor Juh-Ho Oh at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, says the latest cameras – which automatically shoot when they detect a smile – are effectively robots. Microsoft’s Kinect motion-gaming system, which has a camera that follows you around your living room as you have a video chat, is also somewhat robotic.

Our home appliances are becoming increasingly wired (or wireless, actually) and connected with each other. We will soon be able to control them remotely, while our homes will increasingly act autonomously – it will turn off lights and heat automatically when it detects that no one is home. During a recent conversation I had with Jim Watson, another roboticist at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, he wondered why there were so few robots overall on Star Trek. He corrected himself a second later, though, when he realized that “the whole ship was a robot.” Indeed – within the next 10 years, our entire home will be a robot that we’ll be living inside of.


Posted by on March 2, 2011 in DARPA, Google, robots


4 responses to “2021: Robots, robots, robots

  1. petenowak2000

    March 2, 2011 at 6:08 am

    By the way, here’s a story I wrote on the topic, in the current issue of Canadian Business:

  2. Randy

    March 2, 2011 at 8:05 am

    There is mass confusion between the concept of Robot and that of Android. Way to many people understand them to be one and the same, rather than the latter being a rather impractical subset of the former.

    We must realize that robots are much more practical when they are specialized in their functions. Roomba for instance. Domestic robotics is more likely to be in our Jetsonian future looking like 50 different Roomba type units rather than one Rosie. Nowhere is this clearer than in the auto industry where robotics has made huge strides in the manufacturing process helping with welding, painting, and general assembley.

    However given mans basic distrust of anything that we cannot in general understand, I suspect that the Asimov Laws of Robotics will play a role in the integration of more general purpose robotics into our every day life.

    Lastly, with respect to Moores Law, it is tied specifically to very new technologies and the manufacturing process. Since robotics is in reality simply an packaging and refinement of existing technologies (mechanics, servo motors, various sensors, and software) I expect that the accelerating rates of return will have been already accounted for in the parent technologies.

    I guess we have to start by making Hollywood stop defining robots as C3P0, Lt. Commander Data, and The Terminator. Chances are that other than as a novelty, or an electronic pet, this will not be the face of robotics in a realistic future.

    • petenowak2000

      March 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

      Moore’s Law actually refers specifically to the processing power of computers, which robots are directly dependent on. Continuing increases in computing power thereby translate directly into better and smarter robots.

      • Randy

        March 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

        Sorry Chris, Moores Law has to do with electrical engineering, mechanics and manufacturing, but a there has been an inferance to processing power.

        Moores Law states that “The number of transistors that can efficiently / ecconomically be placed on a chip will double every two years.

        It states absolutely nothing about processing power, and was the result of an observation by Gordon Moore (or possibly one of his employees that was less visible to the media). And while it is called a law, it is probably more accuratly called an “informed prediction”.

        Processing power is affected by many more issues than simply the “raw engine size”, including instruction set, band width, i/o capacity, and efficiency of the operating system, middleware and end software. Even today, software lags years behind hardware for efficiency.

        If you put a 454Cubic Inch engine in a Smart Car, it does not go 10 times faster than with the 45Cubic Inch engine it had before. There are simply more issues than just the size of the engine.

%d bloggers like this: