Robots are everywhere. So they say... yesterday morning I was chatting with a colleague of mine, who remarked how if you type "robots" in the search box on Youtube, you get a sea of results (to be precise, 361,000) showing robots coming in all different sauces and incarnation, from cleaning, to flying, to climbing, to swimming. But here is a question each Neurdon is surely asking: other than on Yourube, where are they??!!
It is surely a legitimate question. There have been endless reports in virtually every single media we know of telling us the time is ripe for the robot invasion to begin. And indeed, there is tremendous amount of private and public funding and research that is pushing the boundary of robotics forward. So, where are they? Why are robots still relegated mostly to clean our floors? Provided that this is per se a nobile job which save us tremendous amount of time and back pain, when are the robots going to pop out from Youtube videos and invade our world (be sure what we wish for!). And why have they not already?
For robots to occupy a spot in our daily life and fulfill their promises, three main things have to materialize. I usually split these three "miracles" into three categories, for simplicity. I call them MIND, BRAIN, and BODY. Each one has its challenges, and each is indispensable to achieving the goal of robots escaping Youtube. Let's see why.
Of course, robots need body, which is the most immediate manifestation of their presence. Robotic bodies are getting cheaper and cheaper: nowadays you can buy a fairly good robot for a few hundreds dollars. Even components that once were extremely bulky, expensive, and power-hungry, such as arms, are being designed in cleaver ways, such as inflatable arms.
How about BRAINS? What is a robot brain, anyway? Well, to design a robot with a meaningful set of behaviors, you need to include an equally significant subset of skills exhibited by natural intelligence. This requires considerable computing power, to a degree that just a few years ago was unthinkable in a power envelope, size, and cost amenable to widespread and affordable mobile robots. All this has changed, mostly thanks to advances in mobile computing (e.g., cell phones and related technology). Nowadays, considerable computing power is packed in cell phone based devices, with dual and quad core low power processors and associated mobile graphic processing cards providing juice for computing challenging algorithms.
How about MIND? I call MIND smart algorithms. These are software programs simulating aspects of perception, decision making, navigation, and motor control which enable intelligent behavior (e.g., see here). As you can intuit, the design of a MIND is tightly coupled to the availability of both a BRAIN to run on, and a BODY to be tested on.
As with many scientific discoveries and technological advances, synergy is the key. The combination of powerful algorithms (MIND), cheap, ~$100 mobile computing hardware enabling these algorithms to run (BRAIN), and affordable robots (BODY) are all enabling technologies for the growing robotic industry. Remember how the introduction of the microprocessor slashed the cost, increased the density of circuits and the performance of computer hardware, resulting in new applications and designs?
A similar paradigm change is happening now, which will ultimately allow robots to leave Youtube and enter the real world.