Real applications for pervasive robotics?

Business Week has an article on the impending rise of robots for the home (and other locations). It’s a nice, if non-technical, review, including not just mobile robots but things like smart houses and appliances. Some of the obvious stuff is included, like robot pets, vacuum cleaners, and assistants for the elderly, as well as more far out (but still cool) stuff like assistive wearable computers with cameras and microphones.

Of course, it still shows a lot of the problems that plague these pie-in-the-sky predictions: predicting idiotic, usless applications. Here’s one:

Some, such as PLUTO, a Great Dane-size beast being developed for the military by Cincinnati-based Yobotics, will be fully autonomous. It might run at 15 mph halfway up a mountain, drop off battle plans to a platoon commander, then use night-vision sensors to peer into caves for enemy encampments. Another robot might help with your child’s science project, planting itself in your backyard, taking time-lapse photos of all the bugs that get caught in a spider’s web.

Delivering battle plans? WTF? Why on earth would you want to use a robot to deliver battle plans when you can use a radio and public-key encryption? Time-lapse photography of spider’s webs? Why not just put a camcorder on a tripod?

This is exactly the kind of futurism that I hate! It proposes asinine applications and totally ignores the economics of the situation: no application will be feasible unless provides a clear win by being significantly cheaper than existing equivalent solutions. For example, we’ve had simple mechanical flush toilets for over 100 years now, and they’re not going anywhere, because they’re cheap and they work. The same principle applies to all everyday technologies. Home security robots won’t become popular until they’re significantly cheaper or better than existing solutions like alarms, fences and dogs. (if you have suggestions for realistic applications for robots that seem possible in the near future, let’s hear them in the comments.)

(Speaking of dogs, as a dog owner, I think calling Sony’s 4-legged entertainment robots “dogs” is a bit ridiculous, since they lack one of the most important characteristics of real dogs: social behavior and the ability to recognize and follow their owners and other “pack members”. At icml several of us were talking about how we’d love to be able to build a robot as smart as a dog, but that’s a topic for another entry, I think)

One of the reasons that the personal computer market took off is that they’re general purpose devices that can be made to do many different things simply by changing the software. That’s the key economic equation. After the initial hardware cost, the cost of adding additional functionality is small, sometimes even nil. I suspect that similar economics will have to apply to robots before they can achieve the same kind of market penetration. If you have to buy a separate $700 lawn mowing robot and $200 floor sweeping robot, it’s too much. Likewise, I think the extra cost of embedding processors, RFID readers and network tranceivers in everyday devices like dressers and medicine cabinets may make them economically infeasible. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for us researchers) considerable advances in perception, autonomous behavior, and (often forgotten) power supplies, are needed for that kind of general purpose robot to become a reality.

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