Periodically I do a “deep dive” into a technology that I think is about to start creating waves. I have done this before on Google’s self driving cars so today I want to look at robots. Not just any robots, but telepresence robots.
First you can watch this short video about a robot that can run by itself or under control or a human operator.
Cool eh? As neat as that was, it is still amazingly primitive to what robots will be able to do in just a few more years. I have some annotations from a recent article about that company below.
So let’s assume a few things.
- Robots will continue on the path of rapid evolutionary progress.
- Robots will continue to follow the trend of technology of better performance coupled with lower costs.
- These costs will drop to the point where robots will be as widespread as TVs are today.
- I have spoken at length about the effect of the Internet as being the disaggregation of structures into pieces and scattered geographically. Can you actually do this with people? In other words can you separate mind and body? Technically speaking you do this every time you talk with someone on the phone. The two parties involved send their minds and voice into a electronic environment to have a conversation. It’s kind of crazy to think about it that way but I think it’s accurate.
- If we can do this, then we can send more senses than just voice into virtual space. If you have a fairly high speed connection, you can tele-operate a camera, and even robot arms and other tools. Scientists have already created mechanical replacements for some of our senses. (touch, vision, touch again, vision again)
- Once it is possible to get remote feedback then we can virtually use these robots as remote avatars.
- If we assume each household will be able to afford a versatile humanoid robot capable of being remotely operated what fields could be affected?
How society will be affected
- Military – Robots will be in the military before anywhere else. You don’t win a war by taking ground or killing people. The way you win a war is to make your opponent give up. The main way you do that in previous wars is to make the combat so terrible that they would rather surrender than continue. With robots, combat becomes painless and remote for the military. (for civilians that’s a different matter) - Robots will be in the military before anywhere else. You don’t win a war by taking ground or killing people. The way you win a war is to make your opponent give up. The main way you do that in previous wars is to make the combat so terrible that they would rather surrender than continue. With robots, combat becomes painless and remote for the military. (for civilians that’s a different matter)
- Medical – If you are feeling bad, emergency personnel could access your robot and examine you. The robot would certainly be equipped with sensors that could provide a great deal of useful vital signs.
- Police – If you home burglar alarm is tripped, police can instantly access your robot and check it out. The big question here is if the police could use your robot to take any action.
- Fire – Houses will be equipped with fire sensors very soon (it’s an option in many home security systems) so the fire department could jump into your robot and take action. In addition, I imagine large firefighting robots would be stored in strategic locations around the town. One of these would be instantly activated and be at your house very quickly, operated by a remote firefighter. On arriving, the large fire robot would deploy smaller robots which would enter the house and rescue people with no risk to the firefighters. You would end up needing fewer firefighters since they could cover a much larger area. Think about it, most of the time a firefighter spends waiting for a fire in their local area. Just position the equipment close by and keep the firefighters somewhere else.
- Construction - construction crews already use many specialized machines so using teleoperated robots won’t be a big jump for them. It’s certainly safer. Imagine a humanoid robot that can carry hundreds of pounds, comes with vision systems that can instantly measure things very accurately, and has a number of interchangeable tools built in.
- Education – home schooling would never be the same. Imagine a student is building a project out of wood but is having some trouble. A shop teacher could take control of the robot and show the student the current procedure. Even if you still have kids in a classroom, they can get a guest lecture from anywhere in the world via robot. Imagine an art class with a famous painter showing a certain technique. Amazing possibilities here.
- Service industries – Have a plumbing leak? Your plumber will come to your house via telepresence robot.
As hard to imagine as this future is I think that telepresence in many of these tasks will only be a transition phase until computers will be able to automatically do these things themselves. In the further future we might prefer our doctors to be robots with amazing precision, superhuman senses, lightning reflexes, and access to every medical resource ever made. Now all of this comes at a downside. If a robot is teleoperated, the the operator can be a long way away. Because of the speed of light once you go past 1800 miles away the delay becomes longer than you really want for tasks where reaction time matters. Even so, that means we are talking anywhere on a continent.
The implications of this are that jobs that today are considered safe from oursourcing will no longer be safe. Your plumber might be in South America. The robot would use realtime translation of voice so that wouldn’t even be an obstacle.
This kind of predicting is difficult to do but I just try to take current trends of see what would happen into the future. The future I predict takes into account economic factors but not political factors. Politics is impossible to predict. It might be that technology like this might be banned in order to preserve jobs. Who knows?
No matter what happens, the technology is coming. It’s not too early to start teaching our students how to use these new tools and abilities to enhance their creativity.
So am I crazy or what?
- Robotics Companies Look to Near Future – Disruptions – NYTimes.com
Nice article about telepresence robots
I had my own encounter with a robot last week. I had dinner with one — right here in Silicon Valley.
The dinner was at Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park, and was intended to introduce some reporters to the robots the company is building.
The main attraction was the PR2, which can pick things up, fold laundry, open doors and bring cups, plates and other small objects to people. The PR2 is pretty stunning to see in action. Its price, $400,000 for the fully functional version, is pretty stunning, too.
Roboticists say the price of these machines will begin to drop sharply, which, in turn, will make the use of robots in homes and offices more widespread.
Mr. Cousins said he believed the next wave of robots to enter — or invade — the home and work force would be telepresence robots. These machines have a built-in screen and camera and are essentially mobile video-chatting terminals that can be controlled from thousands of miles away.
Soon, Mr. Cousins said, these gadgets will be given more functional bodies, including arms, so they can interact in a physical space.
At the dinner, the group discussed other possible applications for robots in the near future. Some examples included robots that prepared food; swarms of fly-size robots that could patrol a home or office like guards; robots that cleaned the house, did laundry and took out the trash; and robots that could drive cars, maybe even doing a better job than humans do.