An estimated 10 million Roombas (the little robot vacuum cleaner) have been sold around the world and there are some pretty cool toys like Pleo so it would be fair to say that household robots are already accessible to a degree but what do the next few years look like? Are we set for a robot revolution over the next few years? Whilst robots are common in manufacturing (see chart at bottom of page) consumers still haven’t been treated to the full Jetson’s future we were all promised. So who’s doing what, where is it going and when will we see it?
Firstly there are a many many factors that will come into play to create the perfect robot storm. As with most technology the weakest link in the chain tends to hold everything back. Robots represent the culmination of a lot of different technologies working together effectively and reliably. To mention a few factors that will come into play in the next few years:
1. The internet of things. (0-10 years)
2. A.I. (0 years onward)
3. D.I.Y. robotics community (0 years onward)
4. Manufacture and retail cost. (5-10 years)
5. Energy, power source (power harvesting/renewable etc). (5-10 years)
6. Miniaturisation, nanotech and meta-materials. (7-15 years)
7. Maintenance. (ongoing)
8. Social and cultural acceptance. (ongoing)
9. Consumer demand (ongoing)
* years shown = time to become more widely available/accessible.
The Internet of Things will largely be responsible for automation of many physical devices in our lives such as heating, lights and security as well as common objects like umbrellas and toothbrushes. The I.o.T will be a good backbone for robots regarding both development and use (the more connected the physical and digital world, the easier it is for robots to recognise and interact with its surroundings).
There are new materials like graphene which promise to unlock a new wave of electronics at a vastly smaller scale also being stronger, faster, more energy efficient and lighter. These are critical elements in the function and durability of robots which often involve complex moving parts which may often require a decent amount of energy, especially if mobile. One of the main issues with robots or anything mechanical is that they tend to break. Consumer products tend to have the minimum number of moving parts possible simply because consumers are generally rubbish at looking after anything but the promise of self healing materials promises big things in the complex world of robotics and less maintenance for the average Joe.
Note: We will start to see more self healing consumer products in the next couple of years.
Of course complex robots need brains – the whole premise of robots is they can perform tasks without you needing to be involved. The more complicated the task, the more computing power and sometimes A.I. is required particularly where decisions need to be made in reference to external or random variables. In some ways this is where robots like Roomba currently fall short because they still require manual intervention to empty the waste after every cycle. To resolve the single issue of emptying the trash, the physical robotics would require a huge leap as well as AI which can adapt to the situation (taking out the rubbish is no small task when you break it down).
Socially will we accept robots into our lives? This is very interesting: According to MIT research we are more likely to accept a robot if it is given a human face. Their research has shown that giving technology a ‘face’ will trigger hard wired empathy in our brains. Read more on that here: https://www.media.mit.edu/research/groups/personal-robots. Note to robot makers – make sure you include two eyes, and mouth as a bare minimum. That said, there is also plenty of anecdotal information showing that some people don’t want autonomous technology around us (read this) so we will have to watch this play out.
DIY. Robotics on the whole is becoming a lot more accessible. Cheap and available access to parts like sensors, servos and open source codebases, the ability to 3D print complex parts and utilise platforms like Arduino make robotics accessible to anyone who wants to have a go. It will be this community from which we will see some of the more intersting robots appear in the next few years. For some inspiration here check out this neat kickstarter project, Pixy.
Finally, demand. This is the least reliable element to predict. Technology is a strange beast and consumers reaction to a technology. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked consumers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” So perhaps we may get a few things we never expected that are amazing, along with plenty of things we will reject. I suspect the robots that succeed will be genuinely useful and adaptable role in our daily lives.
The perfect storm for mainstream household robots to become a reality is likely to occur within the next 10 to 15 years. Whilst the perfect robot butler may be 20-30 years off (although I suspect we might see something in a lab within 10 years) we’re going to see robots enter many parts of our lives in ways we expect like helping with repetitive or unlikable tasks like cleaning, examples which add incredible value to our lives (prosthetic robot arms and limbs). There will be more examples like this readily available robot window cleaner with each passing year. Toys are a dead cert for the market, and the signs are already getting interesting (check out the Sumo Jumper from Parrot).
So who’s in the Game?
From a consumer perspective, Google made a huge move acquiring Boston Dynamics in 2013. Couple this with their self driving prototype cars (yes self driving cars would qualify as robots). purchase of AI company Deepmind and Nest (Internet of Things) and there are clearly things happening there. Now include all the car manufacturers, Ford, GM etc because driving automation is clearly a serious business. You would have to put Honda (famous for it’s robots for many years), Samsung, Fujitsu, Sony on your list as well as some toy manufacturers like Mattel, Parrot. Anyway it’s quite a long list and one which will grow in the next 5 years. Here’s the 50 top robotics companies according to business review:
Pretty good list here: List of the top 50 robotics companies
Whilst you wait for your robot butler there’s plenty to look at:
Robots in advertising
Robots in crime prevention
Robots in battle
Robotics in healthcare
Creepy Robots from Japan