2014 may very well be the year of the robot. Why? Looking back, this was the year that robots not only became more visible in the consumer world but also became more prevalent in the industrial world as well. Of course, robots have been a part of industry for decades. What’s new is that robots have evolved significantly and are now smarter and more flexible than ever. And they’re not done evolving yet.
In the workplace, humanoid-like robots are set to work alongside humans in factories and on assembly lines, as ABB’s Dual Arm concept robot demonstrates. At home, so-called social robots are poised to become your personal assistant in ways that surpass your current smart phone and certainly your dust-eating Roomba.
In the manufacturing world, robots are evolving rapidly. Robots have been able to “see” (via vision systems) and are also beginning to “feel” (via smart grippers), making them more powerful and versatile than older models. With more processing horsepower and more sophisticated algorithms, the next frontier in their evolution is being able to “interpret” their environment, which will make them even more intelligent than previous generations of robots. This evolution was on display at the recent Robo Business Conference held earlier this fall.
For robotics companies and their key component suppliers, such as manufacturers of motors, encoders, controllers and drives, this means a good business outlook for 2015 and beyond.
While we are understandably fascinated with the technological angle of robots, such as what they can do and how intelligent and more human-like they’re becoming, there is also a long and storied history of humanity’s skepticism at rapidly advancing technological change. This usually shows up in popular culture in artistic expressions such as stories, novels or movies. Think of Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel “Frankenstein” (which gave voice to popular fears of the advancements of the science of the day) or the Japanese “Godzilla” (which embodied the fears of the rising nuclear age) or more recent movies such as “I, Robot” which depict dystopian futures where humans are no longer in control and intelligent machines have taken over.
While this may be science fiction, often times today’s science fiction becomes tomorrow’s reality.
Still, most scientists and engineers agree that we’re a long way from fully autonomous machines like the ones that humans battle in dystopian novels and movies. That doesn’t mean that the technology is not advancing all the time and at a fairly rapid clip, taking us in some unforeseeable directions with some unintended consequences.
As a result, people are beginning to ask some pertinent questions and raise issues that impact our evolving relationship with robotic technologies. For instance, one of the chief concerns of technologists and economists is the replacement of human labor with robots. Jason Kingdon, chairman of the robotic automation company Blue Prism, examines this issue in a recent piece for Wired here.
And writer Maria K. Regan asks in a recent piece whether or not we should consider the need for a federal robotics agency. Such a move is not without precedent. The FCC was formed in 1934 in the midst of the communication explosion of radio and television, and the formation of NASA in 1958 coincided with the rise of the space age and space exploration.
The rational (sane?) thing to do now is to ask the uncomfortable questions about what the large-scale deployment of robotic technology means for humanity. What are the risks involved? How best to mitigate those risks? Who stands to benefit and who stands to lose? These are broad questions that admittedly may not have simple answers. But failing to come to grips with them now may have unpleasant consequences for us and our children in the future.