Sunday, May 26, 2013

What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics going mainstream?

The question Robotics by Invitation asked its panel in May 2013, was:

What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream? It has been said that we are on the edge of a ‘robotic tipping point’ … but where, exactly, is this edge? And what’s holding us back?

Here is my answer:

It depends on what you mean by mainstream. For a number of  major industry sectors robotics is already mainstream. In assembly-line automation, for instance; or undersea oil well maintenance and inspection. You could argue that robotics is well established as the technology of choice for planetary exploration. And in human culture too, robots are already decidedly mainstream. Make believe robots are everywhere, from toys and children’s cartoons, to TV ads and big budget Hollywood movies. Robots are so rooted in our cultural landscape that public attitudes are, I believe, informed – or rather misinformed – primarily by fictional rather than real-world robots.

So I think robotics is already mainstream. But I understand the sentiment behind the question. In robotics we have a shared sense of a technology that has yet to reach its true potential; of a dream unfulfilled.

The question asks what is the single biggest obstacle. In my view some of the biggest immediate obstacles are not technical but human. Let me explain with an example. We already have some very capable tele-operated robots for disaster response. They are rugged, reliable and some are well field-tested. Yet why it is that robots like these are not standard equipment with fire brigades? I see no technical reason that fire tenders shouldn’t have, as standard, a compartment with a tele-operated robot – charged and ready for use when it’s needed. There are, in my view, no real technical obstacles. The problem I think is that such robots need to become accepted by fire departments and the fire fighters themselves, with all that this entails for training, in-use experience and revised operational procedures.

In the longer term we need to ask what it would mean for robotics to go mainstream. Would it mean everyone having a personal robot, in the same we all now have personal computing devices? Or, when all cars are driverless perhaps? Or, when everyone whose lives would be improved with a robot assistant, could reasonably expect to be able to afford one? Some versions of mainstream are maybe not a good idea: I’m not sure I want to contemplate a world in there are as many personal mobile robots, as there are mobile phones now (~4.5 billion). Would this create robot smog, as Illah Nourbakhsh calls it in his brilliant new book Robot Futures?

Right now I don’t have a clear idea of what it would mean for robots to go mainstream, but one thing’s for sure: we should be thinking about what kind of sustainable, humanity benefitting and life enhancing mainstream robot futures we really want.


  1. Some have compared and it would be nice to think of widespread adoption of robots to the adoption of the pc.
    What did people do with pc's initially? A bit of word processing and financial calc and maybe games.
    They evolved over time to an infinate number of uses today.
    But even if the technology is there to create a general purpose robot, I'm not sure anyone understands how to do it yet. I'm sure cost is not the reason as the rich can always pay whatever it costs. I think there is still a lack of insight into what it will take to create such a platform.
    It is a worry, the industrial and domestic pollution such an economy would bring but I think it is hard to fight the inevitable.

  2. Build me a $100 robot that can go out of my room, down the stairs, make me a cup of coffee, and bring it to my room - All within 10 minutes, and we'll talk... :)

    1. When this robot costs $100, it means that everybody already has it.

    2. if it mowed the lawn, yeah $100 might be forked over...

  3. Reelix ! It's not acceptable to talk this way about a woman ! ....yes, I know, it's bad taste, but essential to understand human-machine issue.

  4. Everybody need a servant or two ones.

  5. "Yet why it is that robots like these are not standard equipment with fire brigades?"

    Well, how much do they cost?

    If the benefits exceeded the cost, then I am sure they would be.

    I suspect they cost about as much a whole fire truck, and fire departments probably feel that the benefit of twice as many fire trucks exceeds the benefit of having half as many equipped with a robot,

  6. Anonymous, Reelix said $100.

  7. Anthony Boucher wrote a rather charming story, "Q.U.R.", about a future where the humanoid robot was a common and widely used product... and the plot was about the trials and tribulations of the inventor of specialized robots. Of course we're short-circuiting this, and starting out with robots so specialized we don't recognize them as robots, from vacuum cleaners to cashiers.

  8. I wish "Robotic telepresence" evolve to the point it will be affordable to individuals. I'm thinking here at everyone who has elderly parents/relatives/friends living far away [other countries or continents] and would like to talk to them, watch them if they fell unconscious..etc.
    On a lower scale, I know people who use Skype solely to talk to their family in other countries, and who otherwise would never touch a computer, so I believe telepresence would be a logical step in this direction [but not at current prices of $3000...$10000]

  9. Well my broadband provider provides humans in their help and support department in India. They follow a flow chart in a language I don't understand like "re-boot the PC only and the router... then say (when it does not work) speaking to manager, hold please.

    Clearly robots would be better here and cheaper!