Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Robots in 3-5 and 5-10 years: View of the Future from Singularity University

Silicon Valley's new Singularity University offers a 10-day executive program that exposes participants to the opportunities and disruptive influences of exponentially growing technologies and to understand how these fields will affect their future and the futures of their companies and industries.

One avid participant wrote:
I think the positive surprise takeaway (for me at least) was how far we have advanced in artificial intelligence and especially robotics. Artificial intelligence has been promised to us for decades, and has been a disappointment for so long that I have consigned it to the dustbin of my research. Ditto for robots. I mean, seriously, if the Roomba (a glorified vacuum cleaner) is the best we can do after decades of work, how are AI and robots going to change the world? It is all well and good for a single-purpose robot to be designed to make a spot weld on a car, but a general-purpose robot seemed a long way off.

The robotic sessions were led by Dan Barry, a three-time astronaut and veteran of many space station adventures (as well as appearing on Survivor!). What I saw onscreen and heard about has made me rethink my doubts about robotics. There are significant strides being made in mobility and utility in robotics. I saw robots walking on four feet through very difficult terrain, on ice, and up stairs. Robot "hands" are a lot further along than I had thought. Mobile robots on wheels, and walking - balanced on two feet - are working today.

The ability of robots to recognize their surroundings, to differentiate between a table and a glass on the table (which is a very difficult thing to program), to pick up the glass, etc. is advancing at a fairly good pace. Dan is an enthusiastic advocate, and it was easy to get infected with his vision, but I can see a robotics industry in the 2020s actually having some significance in the US and world economy. We explored all manner of potential uses for robots, some with more economic potential than others. I am often asked where the jobs of the future will come from. It may be in robotics.

I was particularly drawn to the personal assistant robot. It is actually plausible to design a robot to be the "maid" in a home, to be able to purchase groceries, to assist the elderly, etc. These are the repeatable types of tasks that can be programmed and learned. We may only be ten years away from a nascent and powerful new industry. Now, this is not the robot of iRobot. It will not have intellectual conversations with you. But it will respond to voice commands and clean up, put away toys, etc. Cooking, however, other than microwave foods, is a LOT harder. You will have to make your own omelets for few decades.

John Mauldin, author: Thoughts from the Frontline
Dan Barry categorized robots into two types: special and general purpose.  He suggested that industry will have a steady need for the former but the real breakthrough and potentially disruptive technologies will be in the area of autonomous general purpose robots.

Barry emphasizes that artificial intelligence puts the brains into the robot and that in the next 3-5 years we will see better human-robot interfaces, some with gesture and/or speech recognition.  We can also expect, within the next 3-5 years, with the costs of sensors going down dramatically, better navigation and object avoidance systems and better object recognition and intelligent grasping.

NOTE: Assistive bots are already hitting the marketplace: The French company Robosoft is presently launching their Kompai robots which are designed to assist dependent people in their homes. The robot can speak, understand instructions, find its way around the house, access internet services and act as a telepresence robot for doctor-patient communication. Fascinating video.

Down the road in 7-10 years, as AI continues to improve, we can expect nurse bots that assist with pill dispensing, physical and other rehabilitation therapies, and can read and process sensors and instruments and assist with diagnosis. Companion and household robots are likely to be a big hit too. And swarm and nano bots will be entering the medical and entertainment marketplaces.

Watch this informative 15-minute interview of ex-NASA astronaut Dan Barry: