A Robotic Future

Sounds a bit scary at first, but sometimes you wake up in the morning and the future seems as clear as a bright blue sky. As technology progresses at break neck speed we are starting to see things that were once part of fantasy start to become reality.  Growing up the idea of robots was confined to science fiction films.  As technology has progressed the visions of what was fantasy and what was reality seemed to bleed into one another.    Today we are now starting to see robotics both in military defense and consumer home products. We have unmanned air vehicles patrolling the skies of Afghanistan and the Rumba vacuuming our homes.  Companies, like iRobot, are at the cutting edge of these advancements and creating a new economy in the process for us all to benefit from.

There was a time these ideas were confined to classic literature.  Anyone who has read Jules Verne’s classic “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”, knows what this is about.  When the book was written it seemed a bit far-fetched.  The idea being that a boat would travel under water, only coming up for air occasionally was crazy.  On top of that the boat was made of metal – I mean really how would it stay afloat?  But over time this ridiculous idea would become reality.  It would begin in World War I to today where it is just part of our military practice.  It will not be long before tourist liners patrol the sea floor.

In what I view as a significant small bit if writing, Bill Gates wrote about the dawn of this new robotics era in an article published in Scientific America in 2006.  He compared the robotics  industry as being similar to what the PC industry was like in the mid seventies.  The big comparison being there is no de-facto method of writing robotics applications, similar to the PC world before the advent of Windows.  I will say the challenges of robotics is far greater than a PC.  A PC is very linear in what it does and is controlled by human input.  A robot is being asked to think, like a human, and we are not predictable. The promise of robotics will be taking care of those mundane tasks like folding laundry.  I will take this a step further if it could match all my socks, that would be huge!

Unfortunately these type of big advancements often do not start as part of your children;s play things, a great place to see where much of the advancement begins is the US Department of Defense.  It is not new news that today that pilots operating in war zones are not even remotely in the vicinity, meaning the plane is there but the pilot is sitting comfortably somewhere in Nevada.  The only danger to the United States Military is financial should an unmanned air vehicle be shot down by enemy combatants.  Moving forward you can see the advancements in the skies will move back to the ground.  You see some of that today even in our local police forces, when they have to inspect a potential bomb or detonate a bomb.  But I believe it will go much farther than that to starting to replace some of the tasks of the combat soldier.

If you see some of the robots coming out of Japan you will see some really great and scary work.  Here is one example of how far we have come.  Kokoro has an android prototype that has facial expressions.  If you look at the robot it has a lot of visual flaws however it does attempt to replicate the human form in look and feel.  It is rather scary to see how far they have come.  Another effort under way at MIT is to build a robot that can run as fast as Olympic champion Usain Bolt.  They have not finished but I find the mere fact that they are attempting to be truly amazing and it shows how far we have come.  The dreams are becoming larger in scope and reality is coming into focus.

All this being said there are still major challenges.  If you think of the Usain Bolt example, MIT is developing a robot to run a straight line over 100 meters.  There are no obstacles in the way.  But as we tell all our children (or at least I hope we do), life is full of obstacles.  In particular the physical elements of life.  How does a robot understand obstacle that are not expected or maybe even hurled in front of them, what it supposed to do in those unplanned events?  It will take some clever software engineers to figure out how to write those challenges and solutions into a program.  But I feel confident over time these challenges will be overcome.

Another challenge will be if these new devices reach mass adoption, how will we power this new economy?  We are already facing an energy crunch with emerging economies thirsting for more energy, an explosion of devices from mobile phones, to tablets to Rumbas.  All this causing oil prices to climb, new coal-fired plants being built around the globe around the clock.  Any questions about coal go to Wyoming and see the constant flow of 100 train cars filled to capacity with going in very direction across the Unites States.  Robots will promise to be larger thus demanding more energy resources.

I can’t tell you when all this will happen, but it’s apparent that the days of you doing your own vacuum cleaning are coming to an end. Long live the Hoover!  Not far behind you will no longer need to mob your own floors.  Based on what is available today the bar-tending profession could undergo a change.  It may be a novelty at first but as it progresses one has to ask, “How many bartenders are on the planet and what will they do if they cannot tend bar?”  There will be a social fallout as we move froward. We will see a level of animosity toward a new and emerging workforce, a workforce without a conscience.  But in some ways that mimics the world we live in.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 5, 2011

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