Unexpected convergent consequences…this is what happens when eight different exponential technologies all explode onto the scene at once. This post (sixth in a series of seven) is a look at robotics. Be sure to read the first five posts if you haven't already:
When the World Is Wired: The Magic of the Internet of Everything
Where Artificial Intelligence Is Now and What’s Just Around the Corner
The Near Future of VR and AR: What You Need to Know
Drones Have Reached at Tipping Point—Here's What Happens Next
How 3D Printing Is Transforming the Way We Make Things
An expert might be reasonably good at predicting the growth of a single exponential technology (e.g., 3D Printing), but try to predict the future when AI, robotics, VR, drones, and computation are all doubling, morphing and recombining…You have a very exciting (read: unpredictable) future.
This post is the result of an interview with Rodney Brooks on the top five recent robotics breakthroughs (2012-2015) and the top five anticipated robotics breakthroughs (2016-2018).
Robotics — Context
Rodney is the Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT. He is a robotics entrepreneur and founder, chairman, and CTO of Rethink Robotics. He is also a founder, former board member, and former CTO of iRobot Corp, known for their Roomba robot. He is also the former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and then the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).
In other words, when it comes to robotics, Rodney is the guy you want to know.
Before we dive in, here's some more context around robotics:
For the first time in history, thanks to the convergence of artificial intelligence, sensors, actuator technologies, and the mobile phone revolution, we are on the cusp of a robotics revolution.
They come in all shapes and forms, from Roombas to anthropomorphic robots that look like humans to quadcopters and self-driving cars.
Today, robots are used to do human jobs where the work is either dull, dangerous, or dirty.
Tomorrow, robots will be commanding those professions where accuracy and patience are key.
Imagine conducting precision surgery or taking care of your elderly parents.
As these machines enter every aspect of our lives, from bedrooms to boardrooms, the societal and cultural implications of the coming robotics revolution will be staggering.
Top 5 Recent Robotics Breakthroughs: 2012 – 2015
Here are the recent breakthroughs Rodney identified as important to robotics from 2012 to 2015.
1. Consumer cars have started to become robots.
Rodney points out that today's partially or fully autonomous cars are really "robots."
As we humans interact with robots, largely propelled by this autonomous vehicle movement, we'll have to rethink the interfaces, rules and behaviors we exhibit around these technologies as they become more commonplace in our lives.
2. 3D gaming sensors are readily available.
We humans are really messy, and historically it's been really hard for a robot to understand our clutter. "But recently," as Rodney explains, "3D gaming sensors, driven by consumer electronics, are becoming good enough for a robot to begin to navigate more effectively."
3. Robotic navigation (VSLAM) is now cheap, available on smartphones and vacuum cleaners.
A new technique called VSLAM (Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) is making it easier for robots to map their environment and understand how to navigate through it.
Rodney explains, "Thousands of researchers worked on this problem during the '90s. It has now gotten so cheap that the latest Roomba has a camera and builds 3D maps of the world as it wanders around."
4. Drone control systems reached a tipping point.
"A few years ago," Rodney continues, "autonomous control of a model helicopter was really, really hard. Then drones came along, paired with mobile phone technology, and now drone control systems are intrinsically easier and almost anyone who can write any code can now write code that flies drones."
5. GoPro cameras gave drones something to do.
"GoPro cameras 'just work,'" says Rodney. "They capture great images, and are small, durable, and adaptable. They made drones much more useful and fun to use."
GroPros and similar cameras gave users something to do with their drones and a way to collect useful data. You now see a proliferation of drone footage being used in a wide variety of entertainment and business applications.
So what's in store for the near future?
Top 5 Anticipated Robotics Breakthroughs 2016 – 2018
Here are Rodney's predictions for the most exciting, disruptive developments coming in robotics technology over the next three years. As entrepreneurs and investors, these are the areas you should be focusing on, as the business opportunities are tremendous.
1. Smartphone modules becoming embedded supercomputers for robots.
While we may not realize it, the smartphones we use every day are really tiny supercomputers, and the same components powering these smartphones are now powering robotics as well.
The first Roombas had 512 bytes of RAM, and this was seen as groundbreaking. Today, the Roomba has a tiny supercomputer doing Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (VSLAM), navigating a room autonomously, and retailing at about $300.
In the next five years, these capabilities are going to grow exponentially with profound impacts on robotics.
2. Shared learning in the cloud for robots.
This is one of the most important concepts to understand about the future of robotics — when robots are connected in the cloud, they can share data about their experiences, and in doing so, dramatically accelerate how quickly they "learn" in the real world.
The most profound example of this is in autonomous vehicles. The cars are constantly uploading their driving data (from all of their sensors) to the cloud so that the whole system can learn from every individual car on the road. For example, if one car avoids a new obstacle in the road, immediately all other cars know what that obstacle looks like and how to avoid it.
3. Widespread availability and uptake of collaborative robots.
A collaborative robot is a robot that is designed to safely assist and augment humans in executing specific tasks.
Rethink Robotic's Baxter and Sawyer robots are great examples of collaborative robots being used in industrial settings.
The robots, which are "trained" by simply physically moving the robot's arms in the correct motion, once, work with humans to manage some of the more menial, repetitive and physical work in production lines.
4. Neurally controlled prostheses.
In the next few years, brain-controlled prostheses will begin to make us superhuman.
Rodney explains, "We're already making ourselves better, and that is going to accelerate. Cochlear implants are a great example, though they've been around for a while. There are big DARPA programs now on neurally controlled robotic devices. We'll become superhuman."
These prostheses will change the ways we actuate and interact with the world, giving humans abilities that we couldn't have dreamed of decades ago.
Rodney continued, "We could become super rock climbers at age 70…there's going to be an entire industry around people making themselves better by putting this stuff in their bodies."
5. Physically assistive robots for the elderly.
There's an incredible demographic inversion that's about to happen. In Japan, for instance, we're soon going to have 30 percent of the population over the age of 65. The same will be true in China by 2050, as well as in the US, North America, and in Europe.
As we extend the human lifespan, Rodney forecasts, "We'll see a scenario where the elderly will have to look after the really elderly." This is where a huge (multi-hundreds of billions of dollars) opportunity in robotics comes in.
"We are seeing many early trials of robots that help the elderly get into bed, get out of bed, get their groceries up the stairs, the sorts of things that we'll need to keep our independence," continued Rodney. "Even the self-driving car is another type of elder care robot because it lets us drive longer, lets us have our independence longer."
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