Snow White was prescient. In a
scene from the 1937 Disney movie, she gets a team of birds and cute woodland
animals toclean the dwarfs' housewhile she warbles "Whistle While You Work."
A decade or two from now,
that's going to be how you take care of your house - except the work will be
done by smallrobots, each
built for a single purpose. They will hover in the air to pick up clutter, climb walls to
wash windows and scuttle under furniture to vacuum while you sit back with a
cappuccino and binge-watchBreaking Badreruns.
Outdoors you'll find a robot
swarm cleaning the streets, trimming trees, and watering plants. Little
packages will get dropped off by flying quad-rotor drones, probably emblazoned
with the familiar Amazon.com smiley face. For the big stuff - like, say, a
refrigerator - an autonomous vehicle guided by Google technology will pull into
your driveway, and a hulking Google bot with six legs will carry the fridge up
your stairs and gently set it where you want it.
Over Thanksgiving, Amazon
unveiled its drone delivery project on60 Minutes, and in no time the jokes and indignation were flying:
Hunters will grab their
shotguns and use the drones like clay pigeons.
The drones will short out and
fall from the sky by the hundreds when a rainstorm blows in.
Walmart is working on drones
that kill Amazon drones.
Then, days after Amazon's
reveal, Google went public with its newrobotics unit, run by Andy Rubin, the whiz
who created Google's Android operating system. The message: Google's investment
is no lark. Robots are for real.
In fact, Google and a lot of
other companies believe robots today are like cell phones back when they were
the size of bricks and cost $6,000. It may take 10 or 20 years, but before long
everybody is going to have a robot - or several.
These robots will not look the
way most people expect - they won't walk and talk like C3PO orRosiefromThe
Jetsons. An all-purpose humanoid robot doesn't make much sense. As
tech thinkerKevin Kelly wrote, "To demand that
[intelligent robots] be human-like is the same flawed logic as demanding that
artificial flying be birdlike, with flapping wings."
Instead, the world will
gradually acquire many kinds of robots, each designed and built to most
effectively carry out a particular task in a way that saves humans time, money
The Amazon drones would do
that. Loaded with artificial intelligence, they promise to deliver small items
faster than any human could.
driverless cars are robots. One day, a delivery truck driver will seem as
redundant as an elevator operator.
Robotics and artificial
intelligence are tough fields, but there's so much research lab and start-up
money going into it, we'll get the technology right long before we sort out how
to integrate robots socially, legally and practically. It's less difficult to
imagine delivery drones working than to imagine the New York sky darkened by
thousands of the things carrying everything from shoes to Chinese take-out.
"We'll solve those kinds
of problems when the benefits to society become large enough," says Colin
Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot, maker of the granddaddy of consumer
robots, theRoombavacuum cleaner. Angle notes
that when cars were invented, they were insanely dangerous and disruptive and
Society is already a long way
into robotics and we often don't know it. I recently visited some family
members who own an enormous farm in Saskatchewan. They handle the harvest with
just three people and a giant combine that has so many smarts, the driver
mostly rides along and never touches anything. In another decade, the smarts
will be so good that the farmer can stay inside and play the commodities market
while machines do all the work in the field.
Robot news will keep coming. A
company calledKnightscopejust unveiled its robotic
security guard. It could roam a warehouse floor at night, its camera keeping an
eye out for anything unusual, its chemical sensors sniffing for leaks.
A startupcalled Play-iis making toy-like bots that can teach a 5-year-old how to program
bots. And you know where that will lead in two decades: 25-year-olds who can
invent ever more intelligent bots.
Rodney Brooks, who runs the
robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founded iRobot
with Angle, has a new robotics company,Rethink Robotics. It is making an inexpensive
industrial robot that is simple to train and can work alongside a human. An
entrepreneur, for instance, could set one up in her garage and teach it to make
something, creating a small automated factory.
Brooks and Angle have long
believed the Roomba was the first phase of the "robot-enabled home."
They followed Roomba up with the Scooba floor-washing robot, and promise more
along those lines - perhaps a window-washing bot, or a clothes-folding bot.
(iRobot won't give specifics.) The bots will likely all be wirelessly connected
to each other, and to a kind of "head butler" robot that takes
commands from its owner and hands out tasks to the many mini-bots. (Speaking of
prescient, the old Looney Tunes crew got it close to right in a 1947cartoon.)
Robots working with people is
no fantasy, Angle insists. This is the not-to-distant future.
Plus, it's a whole lot easier
than getting birds and squirrels to do your dusting.