FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, October 22, 2004

Robots Rule!

An article in Wired cites the United Nations' Annual Robotics Survey, which says that the use of robots to perform household chores will increase sevenfold by 2007. Between falling costs of robot development and production, rising labor costs and increased functionality, robots are taking on ever more diverse and complex tasks. "By the end of the decade, the study said, robots will 'not only clean our floors, mow our lawns and guard our homes but also assist old and handicapped people with sophisticated interactive equipment, carry out surgery, inspect pipes and sites that are hazardous to people, fight fire and bombs.' "

We seem to be reaching a "tipping point" concerning robots, where all of a sudden they seem practical. Part of it, as the Wired article mentioned, is driven by economics. But a lot of it also is because we're learning more about how to build better robots, and perform complex tasks mechanically. We often take our bodies for granted, forgetting how difficult it is to climb stairs, pick up and manipulate small objects, and refine eye-to-hand coordination. Instead of trying to build humanoid robots, we're learning to accepts machines for what they are, and design them accordingly.

We are also understanding that it's better to design task-specific robots that do one thing well rather than an uber-robot that can do everything. The Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner is a case in point; it vacuums, and that's all. The house of the future may contain dozens of diverse robots, each assigned a specific tasks, for which it is designed perfectly.