With serious money being invested in robotics by companies such as Google, Dyson, and others, are we about to see robots become an everyday reality? We look at how far the field has come, and what lies ahead in the very near future. (See also: Google shows more love for robots with Savioke investment.)
Our lives are awash with technology. The internet brings valuable information and freshly cooked pizza to our doors, smartphones organise our lives, while even our cars are beginning to talk to us. But one huge omission blights this electronic utopia, prompting the eternal question: "Where's my robotic manservant?" Well, it might be sooner than you think that we'll be rubbing shoulders with digital denizens, at home, work and even in hospital.
Robots in the home
Books and movies have spun a yarn or two about how robots will serve our every needs: clean the house, cook dinner and walk the dog – unless that's a robot, too, in which case it can walk itself, possibly after making your favourite meal. It might then seem sensible to go to your robot emporium of choice, order the Jeeves-Bot 3000 and sit back to enjoy a life of peeled grapes and microwave-equipped canines. Sadly, things aren't quite there yet.
Although millions of pounds in research investment have been poured into robotics, the practical upshot for the high street consumer is that you can now buy a pretty funky vacuum cleaner. The Roomba 760 (£399) is a disc-shaped robotic device that will spend the day negotiating its way around your house, hoovering as it goes. It joins the family of devices available from US company iRobot that also includes the Scooba (£599), which scrubs your floors, the Looj (£249) cleans your guttering, while the Braava (£259) is a robotic mop. iRobot also sell a variety of military automatons, including the 710 Warrior, but they don't really get into those hard to reach corners of the carpet.
For the more technically astute there are a wealth of home robot kits that can be bought from shops such as Conrad, Jameco, and Amazon, but even these are still not much more than clever Meccano kits with a few sensors.
Other than these humble offerings, and the occasional expensive toy, the options for robot-hungry consumers are all mostly vapour and fairy wishes. Things could be set to change, though, as technology continues to develop at an incredible rate. Sir James Dyson, designer of the eponymous vacuum cleaner, has recently invested £5 million in a laboratory at Imperial College London, which will work with Dyson's company to research and develop domestic robots.
"My generation believed the world would be overrun by robots by the year 2014," Dyson told the BBC. "We now have the mechanical and electronic capabilities, but robots still lack understanding – seeing and thinking in the way we do."
The goal of the research with Imperial College is to improve this aspect of robotics, and solve the problems that have held the area back so far. It will still be years before we actually see something affordable on the shelves of Tesco, but at least the area is now becoming a focal point for many developers and technology companies.
"Mastering this will make our lives easier," Dyson continued, "and lead to previously unthinkable technologies."
Google has spent the past year or so buying a number of robotics companies including Boston Dynamics, who build military devices for the US government. The search giant has remained strangely quiet on its motives, but the sudden move to acquire so many talented minds in the area illustrates how important it has become. One example of a Google use for intelligent machines is the self-driving car that has been in development for some time. The Chauffeur project has recently celebrated 700,000 accident free miles, many of them on the real streets of California. At the moment, the huge number of sensors and tracking technology in the cars amounts to an eye-watering £90,000 but in time this should come down to make it a far more affordable option. Robots might not be in our homes, but maybe they'll take us there safely.
One country where robots have a domestic presence is, unsurprisingly, Japan. Companion robots have been an accepted technology for many years now, with machines such as the Wakamaru, launched in 2005, used to provide company for the elderly or housebound. Employing a voice interface, admittedly primitive by today's standards, the Wakamaru could engage in basic conversation and also provide its owners with prompting for taking medication or even contacting emergency services in the event of a fall or sudden illness. Such is the need for care assistants, due to a large number of aged citizens, that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in the 2013 budget the allocation of around £14m for the development of robots specifically to help in this area. Replacing human carers with mechanical alternatives isn't proving popular yet, though, and the industry still has a long way to go before this becomes a serious alternative to human nurses.
One that's already earning its keep is the Paro therapeutic robot, which, rather unusually takes the form of a fluffy baby seal. This curious device is used to deliver animal therapy to patients in hospitals, in particular to those suffering with Alzheimer's and dementia. It learns from its user, responds to their voice and physical interactions, and the company claims that the robot "has been found to reduce patient stress" and "improves the socialisation of patients with each other and with caregivers". This led the Guinness book of records to certify it as the World's Most Therapeutic Robot.
The UK has also started to embrace the health-related benefits of robots with the diminutive Nao, built by Aldebaran Robotics, being used by a school in Birmingham to help teach children with aspergers and autism. The placid nature of the machine makes it an ideal tool for educational purposes, while its small scale, mobility and voice interaction endear the creation to the children.
There has been a trend in recent years to build smaller, more human-like robots. Some of these – Roboy, iCub and Asimo – are pushing forward the boundaries of design, artificial intelligence, and the ‘feel' that Sir James Dyson referenced. Asimo has become something of a celebrity in its own right, with appearances on TV shows all over the world, such as the UK's QI and Norway's Brille, conferences, and it even greeted US President Barack Obama on a recent trip to Japan, then proceeded to play football with him.
The Asimo (Advanced Step in Mobility) project has been in development at Honda for around 15 years, and the results are impressive. The robot can run, hop, jump, talk and interact with humans in a variety of ways. In terms of classic robots of fiction, Asimo is definitely the closest yet that any have come. It's the pinnacle of humanoid robotics, but with only an estimated 60 units in the world, it won't be making the transition to a domestic setting for a long time to come. See also: EU invests €2.8 billion in robotics to create new jobs.
If there's one area of robotics that is beginning to flourish then it's that of robots in the workplace. We've already seen how manufacturing has been automated in recent years so that robots are now a common sight on production lines and in car assembly plants. From a business point of view this makes perfect sense: machines are more efficient at handling repetitive tasks without getting tired, injured or needing the toilet. They also don't take lunch breaks, holidays, call in sick or engage in industrial disputes, although they will no doubt need repairing from time to time. Additionally, there are no regulations on how many hours a day robots can work, and overtime for weekends and national holidays isn't an issue.
Baxter is one of these new breed of employee. His creators, Rethink Robotics, have designed him to be affordable and easily adapted to new tasks. With a starting price of around £15,000 (plus £4,000 per year for maintenance) this certainly meets the first goal, and an innovative programming system makes the second surprisingly achievable. Baxter has two appendages that are multihinged to allow a wide range of movements. To teach him a task the operator presses a button, then physically moves the arms through the positions required. When finished they press the button again and Baxter will remember and repeat. In essence, it's recording a macro on a giant robot.
"Unlike traditional industrial robots, Baxter is an adaptive manufacturing robot' stated Mitch Rosenberg, Rethink Robotic's VP of Marketing and Production management, in a recent interview. "It contains cameras, sensors and sophisticated software that enable it to ‘see' objects, ‘feel' forces and ‘understand' tasks. The result is a robot that automatically adapts to changing environments."
This awareness also means that the robot is safe for humans to work alongside. Traditionally, industrial machines work in a defined pattern, which can be potentially dangerous if someone accidentally gets in the way. Baxter uses his sensors to prevent this from happening, and while there may be a few bumps they'll be more akin to a fellow employee backing into you rather than a bone-crunching attack.
Another goal of Rethink Robotics is to stem the flow of manufacturing being outsourced to the Far East, a trend that has increased in recent years due to the paltry wages and questionable safety requirements that allow for lower costs. By employing robots rather than impoverished people in another country, there could be serious implications on the nature of manufacturing and the worldwide economy if the idea were to be implemented on a large scale.
Obviously this is still worrying news for the large majority of unskilled workers in the West, who currently rely on factories and packing plants for their livelihoods. The average UK factory or assembly line employee is thought to earn somewhere in the region of £15,000 per year. That would mean that over five years they would cost their employer £75,000. Baxter, by comparison, would cost a frighteningly low £35,000, and be able to work more than twice as many hours. (See also: Intel plans to sell a robot you can customize with a 3D printer.)
It's not only industrial jobs that could be superseded; with voice interactions and increasingly sophisticated chassis that are safe to be around, how long before supermarket aisles are the domain of stacking robots that can also tell customers where they can find Fennel seeds? In fact this year at the Consumer Electronic Show the Furo-S robot was demonstrated by FutureRobot, which can roam around its environment, talk to people, features a touchscreen interface for customers to find information, order items and even has a card slot to take a payment. Whether it can be made waterproof or not might determine whether it will shortly be accosting you on city streets to donate to various charities.
While all of these innovations are fascinating, there's genuine concern that many unskilled or casual jobs will disappear in the coming years as robots become more financially attractive. The need for skilled supervisors will still exist, but for the majority of the workforce, the future could become very uncertain. Amazon has already bought Kiva Systems, whose squat, orange robots fetch and carry entire shelving stacks in the enormous Amazon fulfillment warehouses, to enable pickers to package and send deliveries far quicker than humans have ever managed.
This $775m purchase will no doubt pay for itself quickly, as productivity is estimated to have been improved threefold. Amazon isn't stopping there, though. With robots doing most of the heavy lifting in the fulfillment process, why not have them actually deliver the items as well? Amazon Prime Air is the new initiative from the retail megalith which involves flying drones delivering your packages. It might sound like an April Fool's joke, but the retailer is deadly serious and is just waiting on FCC approval to allow the company to enter US airspace. Couriers should be concerned about this, although Google may well put them out of business first with their self-driving cars. The International Federation of Robotics expect machines to be adopted in previously resistant areas at an increased rate.
"In 2007, the US Bureau of Labor reported rates of work-related injury or illness for full-time food manufacturing workers were higher than the rates for all of manufacturing and for the private sector as a whole," it says on its website. "Robot manufacturers have designed robots to meet the unique needs of the food industry that comply with food grade equipment standards. The pharmaceutical industry is another industry that has been slow to adopt robots but has pressure to decrease costs, increase production accuracy, and achieve flexible manufacturing. The worldwide demand for pharmaceutical products is on the rise making this another fertile industry for the use of robots."
While the IFR reports that the use of robots could create as many as three million jobs upstream from manufacturing in the next eight years, it's assured that many employment sectors will see substantial changes in the future.
"There's no automatic guarantee that these jobs will appear or that they'll be at good wages," argued author and technology analyst Eric Brynjolfsson in a recent BBC interview. "There's no economic law that says that everyone's going to benefit from technology. It's possible for some people, even potentially a majority of people, to be made worse off."
One area where many people would be happy to see robots employed is when the danger to human life makes machines a preferable option. DARPA, the Pentagon's scientific research department for military technology, has created a competition for robotics companies to design and build machines that can be used for search and rescue missions. These robots must be capable of completing tasks that range from navigating their way through treacherous terrain, operating machinery (for example, pressure valves to avert explosions), using firefighting equipment, locating survivors and carrying them to safety.
This might sound like something still in the realms of science fiction, but creations like the Atlas robot illustrate just how far the technology has evolved. It's a six-foot tall, bipedal automaton that bears a frightening resemblance to a Terminator-style metal exoskeleton. It's about as advanced as things get at the moment in terms of strength, balance and capability in a single model. Demonstrations by its inventors at Boston Dynamics show its ability to balance on one leg after being hit on the side with a weight, climb stairs, walls, and there is also the potential for it to drive a vehicle. Eventually the hope is that Atlas, and units like it, will remove the need for humans to risk their lives in rescue situations, in much the same way as bomb disposal robots operate now.
Capabilities such as these raise the obvious question of military applications, after all Atlas received significant funding from DARPA. The US Department of Defence has gone on record, stating it isn't planning to use the robots in combat situations, but the temptation will prove very hard to resist as these creations become even more powerful.
Like so many other areas in technology, it seems that industry and the military will be the first to see the benefits of robotics. But just as the Apollo missions gave us non-stick frying pans, maybe the race for robotic supremacy will gift us similar benefits. Let's just hope that we get a C-3PO before the Transformers arrive. See also: In big step for robotics, one robot repairs another in space.