Robots already surround us, and they’re about to do much more than work on assembly lines and pick up dust bunnies.
If you have been following technology news, you might be wondering if robots are about to take over our lives. Google in particular has made a slew of robotics acquisitions: the company bought eight robotics companies in the second half of last year, including Boston Dynamics, a maker of legged robots that can balance well enough to climb over obstacles and run, and it recently agreed to buy drone maker Titan Aerospace, whose robotic aircraft could help bring the Internet to remote parts of the world.
What does it all mean? At the least, companies like Google are anticipating business trends. These companies know that robotics is important, maybe even revolutionary. But if a revolution is coming to the consumer market, what will it look like? And why would it happen now?
If you’re waiting for an invasion of walking, talking, anthropomorphic robots, the coming changes will surprise you. In fact, many have already occurred. Robots are already an essential part of modern civilization, but they have mainly performed static, repetitive tasks (dispensing cash as ATMs, for example). Now, thanks to trends including the plunging prices of certain technology components, robots will soon be able to tackle an array of more complex, varied tasks with greater degrees of autonomy and intelligence.
The true barrier in this market has been the cost of buying and prototyping the key hardware components—components that allow machines to gather data and interact with the world around them. And now, for the first time, these components can be tested and produced at a price consumers can afford. We might see a robot that feeds your pet when you’re away from home, or a robot consisting of a punching bag with hands that helps you train at boxing.
But let’s return to the ATM. Imagine that it could learn to walk around a festival or event and focus on people who looked as though they were interested in making a purchase. Technological advances of the last few years have made it economically feasible to explore ideas like this. Because of the boom in smartphone production, a small camera can cost as little as $20, making it easier and cheaper for machines to read visual data from the world around them. Other components—such as processors and sensors—have also become exponentially cheaper in the last few years (again, largely thanks to smartphone production). There are still large and exciting challenges to overcome (such as creating the software to run such a “smart” ATM), but the technology and the business models already exist.
The Roomba is one of the few success stories in the market for home robotics, and it’s a good example of how a task can be automated with the right combination of technology and cheaper components (such as motors and sensors). And the market for vacuums alone is huge: Transparency Market Research estimated it at $11 billion in 2012 and projected an increase to $14.6 billion by 2018, with robotic vacuum sales rising faster than others.
There’s plenty of room for improvement in this niche market as well. Robotic vacuums like the Roomba must learn to navigate obstacles more skillfully, clean vertical surfaces, reach high places, and receive feedback and instructions by phone. Even more advances may soon be possible; perhaps in the future, the robot will be able to split apart into smaller robots in order to clean cracks and hard-to-reach places.
The smartphone and PC revolutions have given us valuable precedents for studying this market. Once we can make useful devices affordable enough, an entire industry of thinkers, engineers, and inventors will spring up to address the rising demand. In fact, we’ll probably see an app store for robot hardware as well.
Indeed, trying to predict where the robotics industry is headed feels like holding your first iPhone in 2007 and imagining how it would become part of our lives—it’s exciting to ponder what the future holds, but impossible to know. When it introduced the first iPhone, Apple had created an extraordinary piece of technology. But more important, it had produced an affordable product. We can now do the same with robots, and the possible applications are endless.