Friday, August 01, 2003

What Good is a Robot?

It's clear to me that robots, long relegated to the factory floor, are at an inflection point. Advances in miniturization, construction, and conceptual design of robots have created all of the ingredients for a generation of extremely capable, interactive, mobile, and (relatively) affordable robots. iRobot Corporation's products, like Roomba, and its cousins in the MIT AI lab are the leading examples of this, but also the Japanese products like ASIMO and Aibo (the robot toy dog). Each holds a piece of the puzzle, and shortly, I think, products combining these pieces will be on the market: easily mobile, aware of humans, relatively intelligent and adaptive.

But... so what? Despite my belief that "we're almost there," I struggle to come up with any good examples of robots that would change our lives. Okay, so there's a robotic vacuum cleaner. And a bunch of (cool) toys. What else? Rodney Brooks' book Flesh and Machines painted a picture of a future where robotic technology was invisible, subsumed into other products, but I can't think of any examples that aren't ridiculous. Typical examples include robots for home cleaning - other than vacuuming, this is hard to imagine. Are we really less than ten years away from a robot that can pick up and sort laundry, or a robot that can clear a table? Robots for telepresence, perhaps, especially in dangerous situations (disaster response, military, environmental danger). Plenty of entertainment and leisure activities; "Teddy" from AI is probably not far away (although not quite as socially sophisticated, at least for a while).

I feel like this is a failure of imagination on my part: I'm supposed to get paid for predicting the future of technology, and this is clearly a huge area of investment, but for the life of me I can't think of any broadly useful robots. And what about those little toaster-shaped things on wheels that zipped along the hallways of the Death Star? It's easier to transmit information by wire or wireless, so they weren't carrying disks or messages. Sandwiches and juice-boxes for the Stormtroopers, maybe.