I read a lot of tech news, journals, and blogs and it recently dawned on me that we have already quietly entered the age of robots. Certainly we are not yet close to having C-3PO from Star Wars, or even Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space. But I think that we have crossed that threshold that future historians will point to as the start of the age of robots.
There are research teams all over the world working to get robots to do the kinds of tasks that we want from a C-3PO. As the recent DARPA challenge showed, robots are still very awkward at doing simple physical tasks—but they are now able to get them done. There are research teams that are figuring out how to make robots move in the many subtle ways that humans move and they will figure it out.
The voice recognition used by robots still has a long way to go to be seamless and accurate. As you see when you use Apple’s Siri, there are still times when voice recognition just doesn’t get us. But voice recognition is getting better all the time.
And robots still are not fabulous at sensing their surroundings, but this, too, is improving. Who would ever have thought that in 2015 we would have driverless cars? Yet they are seemingly now everywhere and a number of states have already made it legal for them to share the road with the rest of us.
The reason I think we might have already entered the Robot Age is that we can now make robots that are capable of doing each of the many tasks we want out of a fully functional robot. Much of what robots can do now is rudimentary but all that is needed to get the robots from science fiction to real life is more research and development and further improvements in computing power. And both are happening. There is a massive amount of robot research underway and computer power continues to grow exponentially. I would think that within a decade computing power will have improved enough to overcome the current limitations.
All of the components needed to create robots have already gotten very cheap. Sensors that cost a $1,000 can now be bought for $10. The various motors used for robot motion have moved from expensive to affordable. And as real mass production comes into play, the cost of building a robot is going to continue to drop significantly.
We already have evidence that robots can succeed. Driverless cars might be the best example. One doesn’t have to look very far into the future to foresee driverless cars being a major phenomenon. I can’t think that Uber really expects to make a fortune by poorly paying and mistreating human drivers such that the average Uber driver last less than half a year. Surely Uber is positioning themselves to have the first fleet of driverless taxis, which will be very profitable without having a labor cost.
We see robots being integrated into the workplace more so than into homes. Amazon is working feverishly towards totally automating their distribution centers. I think this has been their goal for a decade and once its all done with robots the part of the business that has always lost money for Amazon will become quite profitable. There are now robots being tested in hospitals to deliver meals, supplies, and drugs. There are robot concierges in Japan. And almost every factory these days has a number of steel collar workers. You have to know that Apple is looking forward to the day soon when they can make iPhones entirely with robots and avoid the bad publicity they keep getting from their factories today.
The average person will look at video from the recent recent DARPA challenge and see clumsy robots and be convinced that robots are still a long way off. But almost every component needed to make robots better is improving at an exponential pace, and we know from history that things that grow exponentially always surprise people by ‘bursting’ onto the scene. I would not be at all surprised to see a workable home maid robot within a decade and to see a really awesome one within twenty years. I know when there is a robot that can do the laundry, load the dishwasher, wash the floor, and clean the cat litter than I am going to want one. Especially cleaning the cat litter—is somebody working on that?