Part I: Will there ever be a killer app in robotics?

"I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords" - Kent Brockman. When computers were starting to hit the consumer market, they almost immediately went to Wall Street. Why? It was a software program called VisiCalc released in 1981. It was the world’s first spreadsheet program that allowed the finance industry to calculate multiple business scenarios in minutes; it used to take hours if not days. With that improvement, investors were able to make decisions quickly about whether a transaction was worth taking advantage of or moving on to something better. The underlying driver was finance. The quicker an evaluation can happen, the more deals an investor can make. So, with the increase of more PC’s around to help with computation, you can quickly grasp how the cycle fed itself, fueling the personal computer market that took hold in the 1980’s. Now, fast-forward almost 30 years. Computing power is becoming less and less expensive, thanks almost entirely to Moore’s law. A device that weighed 8 lbs almost a decade ago, now may weigh a mere 8 oz, with better performance. The heart (and brains) of any robot is a computer, and while a typical computer can do several million calculations per second, that doesn’t mean it is smart, much less intelligent. Robots these days really come in two different flavors. A specific task, like the Roomba to vacuum your floor, LawnBott to mow your lawn, or Polaris to clean your pool. Then there are the generalists like the PR2 from Willow Garage, Baxter by Rethink Robotics, perhaps the most famous Asimo from Honda. The former are reliable at performing one specific task, while the latter can usually do multiple tasks under specific conditions. Throw a little sunlight, a door, or a completely new floor and most of these guys, err I mean robots, become disoriented and fail to complete any task. It might take several engineers two to four hours to reprogram Asimo to go across a room and grab a glass of water. Aside from Baxter, the generalist robots cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions, hardly within the budget of most consumers. Robotics have come a long way in the past 10 years. Between Arduino microcontrollers and cheap sensors, what used to cost thousands of dollars just a few years ago, now is only a couple of hundred dollars. But where will the elusive killer app come from. PC’s had the military and Wall Street to fund their progress. Most of the research and design for robots has come from the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. Think security guard, sewer pipe cleaning, and any task involving a nuclear reactor. These unfortunately are relatively low-paying jobs and the value mostly comes from saving a human life, which can be difficult to quantify, particularly to the family of the person at risk. In Part II, we’ll look at the various areas that are potentials.

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