Stimulus Package for Robotics

If you’ve been tracking the economic developments in robotics, you know that only real business opportunities have been primarily in the military and entertainment industries. Several of my friends in consumer robotics joke about how their niche desperately needs a ‘stimulus package’ to get things moving again. They take the position that nothing revolutionary has happened in every day use of robotics for decades.

Although I think that significant progress in consumer-level robotics has been made, the relative stasis in robotics was brought home to me on a recent visit to an MIT museum that featured prototype planetary crawlers built for NASA in the 1970s. Although today it’s possible to replicate the functionality of those crawlers with off-the-shelf components, they are just as compact, expertly machined, and functional as anything on the consumer market today. So, what happened to the innovation and rapid evolution characteristic of robotics decades ago, and why hasn’t it percolated down to the consumer level?

Economics is obviously an issue. Most small robotics companies that don’t have the good fortune to have contracts with the government have no choice but to innovate in order to make due with less. Because as enthusiasts we’re in the same practical situation, our innovation tends to be in the realm of duplicating technology as inexpensively as possible. While this is certainly a worthy and practical exercise, it doesn’t necessarily advance the field of robotics. But it can.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take a team of scientists to innovate. Consider the developers of the ‘killer apps’ that eventually made the personal computer a consumer commodity. Most of these applications were created by one or two innovators, working with little or no capital, while holding down a regular day job.

Clearly, the equivalent of the electronic spreadsheet has yet to be developed in practical robotics for the consumer market. And without the killer app in consumer robotics, it will be decades before the family pooch is replaced by a robot capable of fetching the newspaper — assuming newspapers are still around.

All is not lost, however. Another way to frame the apparent lack of innovation is to argue that the pressure to innovate in a way that advances “the field” isn’t there. Robotics, for many enthusiasts, is a means to an end. Students considering a career in engineering use robotics to gain practical, hands-on experience at problem-solving electrical and mechanical systems.

Engineers in training employ robotics to demonstrate concepts they’ve mastered, and computer scientists use robotics as a platform to explore artificial intelligence and machine learning concepts. For these innovators, the current state of readily available, somewhat standardized robotics platforms allows them to innovate in their areas of interest.

So, perhaps there isn’t really a need for a stimulus package for robotics after all. It’s just adjusting expectations that’s in order. While robotic technology can help you park your car today, it will likely be decades before Wal-Mart offers personal care robots that will ferry your slippers and paper-thin view screen from one room to the next, check on your medications, and take out the trash. I have to admit that such a future would be nice.

For now, my CrustCrawler arm, fleet of Parallax carpet rovers, and homemade robots provide stable, useful platforms for my AI experimentation and, hopefully, innovation.  SV


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