Caring for an aging population, giving manual-labour jobs to illegal immigrants and keeping production costs down as worker wages rise sound like issues reserved for a political campaign. But panelists at a recent discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believe robotics will help solve these problems and others faced by society and businesses.
Once relegated to science-fiction movies and automobile assembly lines, robots will handle more complex tasks in various industries, including healthcare and agriculture, according to those who spoke about the future of robotics.
"People underestimate the long-term effects of robotics on society," said Rod Brooks, co-founder and chief technology officer of robotics company iRobot. "Robots are getting closer to people. We need to see how robots and people interact," said Brooks, who is also director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence laboratory.
Robots are appearing in hospitals and will handle additional healthcare duties as the population ages, he said. The Japanese use robots as companions for the elderly and robots at one US hospital move laundry and deliver patient meals, said Brooks, whose company makes the Roomba vacuuming robots. He cited agricultural harvesting, an industry that in the US uses illegal workers, as an area for robots as immigration enforcement cuts into the labour supply. Brooks also mentioned that the cheap labour offered by offshore providers will diminish as wages rise, with manufacturers turning to robots to handle production.
However, a multitude of issues require remedies before robots play a more ubiquitous role.
Sensors that provide the ability to really understand your environment and which "can provide instant feedback at an affordable cost" are needed, said Tom Ryden, CEO of North End Technologies. He then questioned the performance of the vehicle that won the DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) Urban Challenge, a road race featuring cars operated autonomously, had the weather and road conditions not been perfect.
"What would have happened if it was raining?" he said. "That car wouldn't have made it 10 feet."
User interfaces, which sometimes prove too complex for people, also need refinement, he said.
"Here's a little thing for you engineers out there. Engineers make the suckiest interfaces ever," he said.
Soldiers had difficulty learning the controls of the PackBot, an iRobot product made for the military, prompting one company engineer to recommend that better-trained people handle the devices. iRobot, however, used a different tactic, Brooks said.
"Now we ship [PackBots] with a game controller and have instant usage."
It's also the case that better sensors capable of recognising objects aren't useful if the intelligence to interpret this data isn't available, said Chris Hofmeister, CTO of Brooks Automation, which makes robots for handling automated tasks in the manufacturing industry. And power concerns for long-term field use need to be addressed, according to Deb Theobald, CEO of Vecna Technologies, whose BEAR robot is designed to remove humans from harmful situations.
Technology's interdisciplinary nature will help foster robotics advancements, the panelists said. The consumer space will create the need for cellphones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) with better batteries and these innovations will eventually be adapted to fit the robotics industry, Theobald said.
Meanwhile, developments in multicore computing and storage advancements have already enhanced robot development.
"Quad-core computing helps because each core handles a task," said Mick Mountz, CEO of Kiva Systems, which builds robots that deal with tasks like moving goods in warehouses. Brooks said that storage is no longer a problem and noted how a single iPod could eventually hold all the books in the US Library of Congress.
While the prospect of robots containing flash memory, several processors and hybrid batteries may imply a price beyond the budget of some companies and most consumers, Brooks countered this point.
"Robots should get faster and cheaper over time, given how robot component prices have pretty much stayed constant," he said.
Technology will not be the sole driver of robotics innovation, said one panelist.
"Biology systems are great models for robotic systems," Theobald said. "It is interesting to think about how it could all come together."
Her company considered using muscle tissue in a robot. However, this would require blood to nourish the muscle and Vecna questioned the implications of sending robots that bleed into combat.
With robots already being used by enterprises, next up is the consumer market, where use of the devices will help them evolve.
"Consumer-driven growth is a great driver for robots," Hofmeister said. "In long-term evolution, the killer app with robots is taking over greater consumer issues."