Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Robot Invasion Has Begun

Lock up your family, protect your job! You don't have to be Ray Kurzweil to see that there has been an acceleration of certain kinds of technological progress in the last generation - the rise of the PC, followed by cellphones, the internet, laptops, smart phones (only since 2007!) and now tablet computers. There have also been advances in machine vision and materials technologies - witness the big leap of the Xbox Kinect, which, along with touchscreens in smartphones and tablets, is radically reshaping our concept of human/machine user interfaces. All of this seems to have laid the groundwork for a near-term revolution in robotics. And such a revolution is in many ways overdue. Robotics pretty much stalled after the introduction of industrial robots into the large manufacturers, such as the auto industry, in the 60s and 70s. However, in the last number of years it has slowly been making advances that have created the conditions for a new leap forward.

Already, there are a number of popular open-source research platforms, like the PR2 from Willow Garage (something of a spin-off from Google) that is in the video above demonstrating a new software module that enables the PR2 to pick up and scan the bar codes of groceries (bye-bye check-out clerks?). The makers of the very popular Nao robot from France are about to go open-source to speed up the process of developing software "apps" to supply behaviour modules for the cute, versatile little robot. Google has also announced that it will extend its Android open-source software's capabilities into the field of robotics with Android@home, which will provide a common operating system for the growing interest in home management or smarthome systems - things like dimming lights, controlling the thermostat, home security, cleaning robots, etc. And there are popular events like the Robocup, that brings together programmers and robot aficionados to engage in a robot football tournament with the goal of creating better-than-human robot football/soccer players by 2050. To be honest, I think it will be sooner than that.

All of this stuff is interesting and even exciting, however it has mostly been about laying the groundwork and robotics is waiting for the killer device to make the breakthrough into ubiquitous robots in the same way that Apple made the breakthrough for smartphones and tablets. There are two immediate potential contenders in this field - Willow Garage is perhaps a contender but at present their interest is still in the field of research and development platforms with a $400,000 robot that's out of reach to consumers and most businesses. One is Heartland Robotics, headed up by Rodney Brooks a pre-eminent robotics professor, formerly of MIT, and founder of iRobot, which brought the Roomba vacuum cleaner to market. Of the 8.6 million robots in the world, something like 7 million of them are Roombas, so he has a track record of knowing how to convert existing tech into a consumer device. Brooks now intends to take that success into the field of light manufacturing by advancing on the platform developed with the Obrero (worker) robot - basically an intelligent, dextrous arm and hand - from a few years ago. While Heartland is in what's called stealth mode - primary research to complete development of the product out of sight of competitors - the general goal of Heartland is public knowledge.

Brooks wants to create a robot for light manufacturing that will be priced in the $5,000 range, allowing the USA to compete with low wage economies to which a lot of manufacturing has been outsourced - places like China and Asia. I haven't done the math on the relative advantage of a $5,000 manufacturing robot vs a product produced by sweated labour plus the costs of shipping and handling but my guess is that it would make a lot of domestic manufacturing more competitive. Brooks believes that this will generate a new industrial revolution and will eliminate drudge work in the service sector, particularly in health care. The first impact, however, is likely to be unemployment in those industries that can make use of a cheap robot. There will be other impacts, such as the long term decline in the rate of profit once affected industries take up the new technology across the board and the effect of relative advantages is mitigated (I'll take up some of this in a future post). Whatever the ultimate character of the impact, it would no doubt be huge. Check out 32 minute Brooks talk, below, from the Maker Faire in 2009:

The second potential "killer device" is the forthcoming general purpose home robot, Luna. While we have the Roomba in the home, there has yet to be any general purpose robots to perform a variety of tasks. I'm not sure that the Luna is it - it seems to have too little functionality. But the intended future price tag of $1,000 (for this year and next it will be $3,000) might be low enough to encourage enough early adopters with disposable income and a desire to be the first ones on the block to own a home robot to make it a viable business model. The Luna platform is intended to be expandable both in terms of hardware and software, with the idea that developers - in the model of the iphone and Android app stores - can create specific modules to expand the capabilities of the Luna - say voice recognition software or a more advanced arm, etc.

But even if the Luna itself isn't ready for prime time and doesn't take off as the company hopes, it is a sign that the genie is out of the bottle - the age of personal robotics has begun. To be honest I haven't grokked what the cultural implications of a robotics explosion will entail - it certainly won't mean the end of inequality, world hunger or imperialism - most of the "service" robots other than the Roomba are for military use to defuse IEDs, as spotters, UAVs and, already in testing, the next generation of fully robotic fighter planes known as the Phantom Ray. But it would be foolish to think "nothing will change" and the coming robot revolution deserves some serious social analysis. Thoughts?
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