The Prospects of Robotics

Robotics has been around since the age of the greek philosophers with Archytas known to many as the grandfather of robotics, we can truly say that the field, as we know it, has been around for roughly half a century[1]. Sadly unlike many other industries where technology would find its way to the hand of the everyday consumer, robotics has mostly stayed in the world of assembly and manufacturing. However, due to recent key advancements in technology robots are not only becoming smarter, but also more accessible. Robotics has taken a giant leap forward; no longer are they just mindless machines following a set of hard coded actions instead they are provided with algorithms that analyse possible approaches to accomplishing the task and then decide the approach that is the most efficient -- much as we would encounter in nature.

Robotics has taken a giant leap forward; no longer are they just mindless machines.

Assuming you are interested in robots -- I, with some obvious bias,think everyone is interested in robots on one level or the other -- the thought of robots is a rather tantalizing one that allows us to daydream of far into the future. Maybe your dream is a pleasant one a la R2D2 or C3PO, or like me if you were obsessed with the Terminator saga and the Matrix then you might find yourself daydreaming of a grueling chase with a T-1000. The T-1000 is the stuff of nightmares. Anyways, I can assure you that the current generation of robots will not be plotting to take over the globe (stop pushing the robot Kevin). In all reality, robots are at a stage where thanks to new feats in autonomy we could start seeing their use in fields beyond production and manufacturing, such as innovative applications using robots as waiters (robots at a coffee shop) and many other possible applications requiring robot-human interaction.

What makes the current work on robots so much different than that which has gone on in the past? The answer can really be categorized by both changes to robotics hardware and the software with which it works. Neither change is more drastic than the other; therefore the order by which we address them has no indication of importance.

Let’s briefly discuss what happened in the world of robotics software that has caused the momentum of innovation to really take off. The original problem of robotics software was that in the world of research sometimes things get stuck on repeat. While many universities worked on robotics they often times ended up creating different variations of the same solution, which is great for research but essentially stagnates the field. With the introduction of common frameworks where solutions to problems have already been provided, researchers and innovators alike are able to tackle the next problem instead of reinventing the wheel. Open source software has been a massive influence for researchers and companies alike. Many frameworks much like the one we use at Codelitt Incubator, ROS, allow us to focus on tackling the next big thing instead of having to start from 0 every time.

Although there has been great advancement in sensor technology, that is really not what caused the boulder to start rolling on the hardware side. The big change with hardware is a bit more philosophical than it is mechanical. The start of the big shift can be attributed to a change of focus from aesthetics to that of function. Clearly industrial robots do not seem to have an ounce of aesthetics or design built in, but for many years when one thought about consumer robotics aesthetics it was often times more important than function, a search of robotics throughout the early 21st century will unveil a multitude of high profile bipedal robots and technology advancements designed to humanize robots. As innovators it is much more difficult to solve problems with something that looks good yet is highly limited than something with a purely functional build. Gone are the days where the focus on robotics is to mimic human beings, instead the era we are in embraces all functional robots with the capabilities to perform many useful tasks.

Assimo

Human friendly designs such as the ASIMO and PEPPER are not always the most efficient when it comes to robotics, in both cost and application. Though they are still rather remarkable such as asimov climbing stairs

PR2

On the other hand robots which have less focus on being aesthetically pleasing such as the turtlebot and the PR2 are not restricted by aesthetics and can therefore be more functional. A time will come where we are at a technological level were humanoid robots become both pleasing to look at and functional but sadly it is not something we can use in production just yet.

Regardless of whether we see ourselves as innovators or consumers, or both, it is up to us to embrace the culmination of human ingenuity and curiosity that has led to the current and future iterations of robotics. Though the technology is here, the challenge remains to invest in the development of new applications with the technology that already exists. This is what we have seen for really the past 20 years of internet technology and the web. Robots could be a great boon to the service industry be it waiting tables or greeting customers. Possible applications can also be far bigger allowing robotics software integrated with something along the size of a smart car could be a great and novel way of transportation. Although this may seem like an overwhelming project the underlying technology already exists to perform such tasks and a few people are already working on it. Much like humans, the potential for robotics is endless and only limited by our effort and creativity.

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Written by
Abel Castilla 29 Aug 2016

Classically trained physicist and programmer with a passion for everything AI (also my favorite movie).

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