Isaac Asimov’s compilation, I, Robot, first published in 1950 and featuring short stories written throughout the 1940s, portrayed earth of the early 21st century as a world full of robots tightly integrated in the everyday lives of humans. The robots described in Asimov’s writing were not Roombas but rather human analogs with positronic brains, personalities and ethics.
The future of 2015, as portrayed by Asimov, may have seemed plausible when it was first published in 1950. Yet today, despite considerable technological advancement, it still feels decades away. That leaves many of us asking the question, where are all the robots? It is a question that finds company with the likes of where is fusion power? and where are the flying cars?
Personally, I often hear dismissive responses to these kinds of questions. Though I admit that in the private sector there is a certain practicality to that perspective, I think it misses the point. Each of these questions represents a nexus of imagination, creativity, culture, science and technology. From my perspective these questions are important drivers of innovation. Sometimes, the pursuit of an impossible goal can yield a panoply of innovations along the way, even if the ultimate goal is never realized.
A prime example of this is the Gravity Research Foundation, established in 1948 by Roger Babson, a prominent American businessman and founder of Babson College. The Gravity Research Foundation, an idea proposed to Babson by Thomas Edison, sought to develop materials and methods capable of manipulating gravity. The foundation ended with the death of Babson in 1967 without ever realizing its goal.
Though research in “Gravitation”, as it was called in the 1960s, is considered by many today to be junk science the effort was hugely impactful. Gravitation research influenced wide ranging innovation across fundamental physics and the aerospace industry. A notable example is Richard Feynman’s work on quantum electrodynamics, for which, he received a Nobel prize. Gravitation research also played a role in the development of Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird, which still holds the record for the fastest plane to have ever flown 60 years after its initial flight.
So how does this answer our initial question? Where are the robots? Well, it may be that the question is premature and a little more patience is required. It may also be that on the journey to develop a humanoid robot we’ve discovered the kinds of tasks robots are actually good at and being human is not one of them. Thus, we are already reaping the fruits of this endeavor in the form of industrial robotics and manufacturing. However, this assumes we will never have the human-like robots like we imagine in science fiction.
An argument can be made for both positions. In public spaces robots are mostly absent and the ones that do exist look more like R2-D2 than C-3P0. Meanwhile, in industrial spaces we’ve observed an explosion in robotics over the past 30 years. Both observations would seem to support the second position.
However, companies like Tesla and Boston Dynamics are still pursuing the development of human-like robots. Recent videos of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas prove that the limitation to robot technology is not electromechanical. It appears the final hurdles for wide scale adoption of mass scale robotics technologies are AI, safety and culture. So, we may yet see the rise of general-purpose humanoid robots, but it will have to wait a few more years.
About Andrew OShei
An experienced engineer and developer of IOT, Robotics and Embedded solutions. In his previous work in the entertainment industry, Andrew has developed wireless control systems and automation solutions for audiovisual equipment and theatrical effects. Currently with SogetiLabs, he is developing IOT and Robotics platforms as well as edge computing solutions for deploying AI on low powered devices. He specializes in developing end-to-end solutions, including custom hardware, fabrication, mechanical and electronic design in addition to the firmware and software required to bring a project to completion.
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