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The Robotic Revolution

November 8, 2015

The last three years have seen a slew of impressive deep learning feats. Machines are finally able to effectively extract meaning from the fuzzy thing that is the real world. This is already enabling all kinds of things, from smarter websites to self-driving cars. I’m very enthusiastic about this rapid progress. I think it’s becoming very clear that in the next 20 years, the world will see an increasing robotic presence. I don’t mean to say that androids will instantly become ubiquitous. We’re obviously not there, both in terms of AI capabilities, and in terms of being able to produce lightweight, affordable and nimble robots. What I mean to say is that many of us have already accepted self-driving cars as an inevitability, since there are already working prototypes. The question is then, why stop there?

How much of a stretch is it to go from a self-driving car to a street-sweeping robot? What about an automated garbage-disposal truck with a robot arm that picks up garbage bags without human workers? What about an automated lawnmower you can control with your smartphone? It’s obviously going to take some time for these things to be developed, but I think we can all agree that the automated garbage-disposal truck is not that far-fetched. How much more of a stretch is it to go from such a robot to one that restocks store shelves? Those who have warned us of robots taking human jobs are most likely right.

In the domestic realm, there is already a Berkeley prototype of a robot that can fold laundry. I think one of the biggest hurdles there is going to be the cost. The economic reality is that going from a university prototype to a useful product requires several years and a large monetary investment in R&D. Furthermore, no investors are going to fund the development of such products if the amount of people who can afford to buy them is too small to make a profit. This means that even though we’re very close to being technologically capable of building domestic robots, it’s going to take some time before they reach the market.

Still, I think at this point, it’s only a matter of time. Robots are going to become increasingly present in the world around us, and this will likely generate a feedback cycle. The range of robotic capabilities will expand, the cost of components will go down, and as robots enter the global mindshare, people will become increasingly likely to want to apply robotics to various tasks. We’re about to see a robotic revolution. At this point, it seems inevitable.

  1. I’m not sure that the economic barrier is as big as you suggest. As Google has shown, if you have lots of money, then you can attack problems that previously were far-fetched.

    The example of autonomous vehicles has lots of potential uses, from taxis and logistics to farm machinery. If the cost of these vehicles is cheaper than the equivalent human plus non-autonomous machine, then industry will jump at it.

    The rewards for the investment seem to be enormous, and the risk seems to be reducing all the time.

    • Autonomous vehicles are something that seems obviously profitable. Domestic robots it’s a little unclear. They would have to be truly useful, not just a novelty, for people to start buying them. That requires being able to achieve multiple useful tasks (e.g.: cleaning floors and surfaces, washing dishes, doing the laundry and folding clothes, taking out the trash, preparing frozen meals), having some understanding of the environment and dealing with voice commands. For there to be enough early adopters for a commercial venture to work, I’m guessing you would also need a price point somewhere below $30K.

      Domestic robots are a challenge at least an order of magnitude more difficult than a self-driving car IMO. But sure, if Google decides to jump at it, we might see it within a decade. That being said, I can imagine restaurants and cafeterias buying something like a special-purpose robot that only knows how to wash dishes but does that one task well. They have enough volume of dish washing to make the investment worthwhile, so long as the robot costs less than a human worker.

  2. Kurt permalink

    We are already seeing many viable robotic companies. Take the Roomba by iRobot vacuum robot. The Roomba cleans houses better then any human, people with allergies swear by them. They have been so successful that most major vacuum cleaner companies are build competitors. The same thing is happening in lawn mowers, just a few years behind.

    Large farms are already there. Everything except take the farmer out of the cab. It’s called precision farming. The modern tractor can be 100% computer controlled. I mean everything, transmission, hydraulics, pto, brakes. Modern tractors are actually drive by wire. Add a GPS, sensors, computer, total automation. They only require a driver in the cab to hit the stop button if something goes wrong.
    The real benefit in farming is field mapping. For example combines use a GBS and yield senors to generate a yield map of the field. This can be used to customize fertilizer map which gets used by the automated fertilizer spreader. Thus saving money. Same for weeds/pesticides etc.
    The precision farming technology in the beginning was more piecemeal at many farm universities and startups. Now companies like John Deere have front to back solutions. Given the savings in fertilizer/pesticides/etc. have been selling very well.
    Where AI might be the most benefit stuff like identifying weeds. IE use AI to parse video from cameras on the tractor, combines or even drones.

    • I sincerely doubt that the Roomba “cleans houses better than any human”. There are many places it couldn’t reach just in this tiny bedroom, and it could easily get stuck in various places, and then you have multi-story houses. The Roomba could probably use little legs, or a vacuum arm that goes under furniture. In a few years though, sure.

      As far as tractors and farming equipment go, better AI is useful to avoid accidental property damage, or accidentally killing someone in a horrible accident.

  3. Kurt permalink

    On making robots lighter. It looks like the revolution is 3D printing.

    Recently 3D printing has been used to producing some amazing things like the Draco rocket engine on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule or the fuel pump for NASA’s SLS main stage rocket engine.

    3D parts can be produced with internal air pockets in a sort of honeycomb shape that dramatically reduces weight. James Bruton at built a R2-D2 style robot using home 3D printer. He figures 3D printing cut the weight in half.

    Also Boston Dynamics using is 3D printing for it’s next leg, then expect dramatic weight savings.

    I think the weight savings will benefit many things. Cars, planes, bikes, etc.

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