The Top Ten Technologies: #4: Practical Robots

Wednesday, July 14, 2004
by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger
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Practical robots offer tremendous potential for enhancing the quality of life for humans everywhere. The robotics industry is emerging now, and progress is steady. The world leader in robotics is Japan, which has invested heavily in social robots -- robots that interact with people.

The United States, in contrast, is focused primarily on robots that kill people. The vast majority of robotics research in the U.S. is underwritten by military interests. The Pentagon essentially wants to develop a Terminator: a battlefield robotic soldier that can accomplish political or military objectives without resulting in human casualties that cause troublesome dissent back home.

Once again, we see that a promising area of technology can be both constructive and destructive, depending entirely on the intent of its creators. For this section, however, I will focus on the far more peaceful Japanese approach to robots, because this is the area that holds promise for enhancing the lives of human beings.

Social robots already exist

Early social robots are already on the market: AIBO, Japan's cute robotic dog, is owned by more than fifty thousand people. AIBO offers basic interaction with humans such as face and voice recognition, cute-looking movements, and simple environmental navigation (it can walk around).

In the U.S., the household robot Roomba (developed by a Russian researcher, by the way) sweeps the floors of hundreds of thousands of homes. Roomba is one of the first few practical robots to be widely available, and it is, indeed, rather useful. I own one myself. However, its interactive capabilities are extremely limited. It has no vision system, for example, no voice recognition, and seems to operate more on random walk theory than any sort of intelligent navigation pattern.

The real promise in robotics will come from humanoid robots, most likely from Japan. Honda, Toyota and Sony are all working hard on humanoid robots and have working, walking prototypes right now. Why humanoid? As humans, we've created environments built for humanoid creatures. Our physical environments (cities, houses, stores, etc.) have been constructed for the convenience of people with a certain height, a certain eye level, and a certain stride length. As humanoid robots are developed, the more easily they can navigate our environments the more helpful they can be to humans.

It is the "helpful" category in which humanoid robots offer the greatest promise. At a basic level, these robots promise to free us from physical labor (factory work) and household chores such as doing the dishes, taking out the trash, folding laundry, cooking, etc. This alone, as gimmicky as it may seem, would free people from time-consuming chores. (None of these chores are simple from a robotics point of view, by the way. The technology needed for robots to engage in such tasks is still many years away.)

Such robots would probably never be cheap to build, but they will quickly pay for themselves in terms of reclaimed time for their owners. A professional earning $100,000 / year, for example, might easily waste $25,000 / year worth of her time handling household chores that could be managed by a practical household robot. If the robot costs $50,000, the payoff would be just two years. That's makes a $50,000 robot a reasonable investment for most professionals.

Robotic companions

Practical robots will no doubt start out as workers or "practical assistants." But this is only the beginning. The next level up, in terms of enhancing the quality of life of humans, is for robots to serve as companions. Are you the parent of an only child? A companion robotic pet or robotic child could teach your child a lot about social interaction, responsibility, friendship, and even help the child learn academic subjects like mathematics, reading, history, literature and science.

Are you a lonely retiree? A robotic companion could add a lot to your life through conversations, games, physical activity, and coaching.

You see, robotic companions won't argue, won't betray you, won't divorce you, won't die, won't fall asleep when you want to talk, and they won't even eat the favorite food out of your refrigerator. As humorous as these points may sound, they are serious considerations for companionship. In time, many humans may choose robot companions over human friends for these (and other) reasons.

Meaningful companionship with robots requires significant leaps in AI, portable power, vision and voice recognition systems, and many other technologies. These technologies are steadily moving forward. In time, robotics engineers will be able to deliver companion robots that do far more than household chores: they will actually add meaning to our lives.

Next: Part 5 - High-density portable power

This article has been adapted from, The Ten Most Important Emerging Technologies For Humanity, an ebook by futurist Mike Adams.

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About the author: Mike Adams is a natural health researcher, author and award-winning journalist with a passion for teaching people how to improve their health He has authored more than 1,800 articles and dozens of reports, guides and interviews on natural health topics, and he has created several downloadable courses on survival and preparedness, including his widely-downloaded course on personal safety and self-defense. Adams is a trusted, independent journalist who receives no money or promotional fees whatsoever to write about other companies' products. In 2010, Adams launched, a natural health video site featuring videos on holistic health and green living. He's also the founder of a well known HTML email software company whose 'Email Marketing Director' software currently runs the NaturalNews subscription database. Adams is currently the executive director of the Consumer Wellness Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit, and regularly pursues cycling, nature photography, Capoeira and Pilates.

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