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.