The Robot Revolution Is Here

Building a robot has been one of humanity’s longest-standing dreams.

Feb 26 2015, 1:30pm

Building a robot has been one of humanity's longest-standing dreams. Mechanical helper beings appear in the stories of ancient civilizations the world over, from Greece to China to Israel. On the flip side, the thought of robots running amok is one of our most enduring collective nightmares, a la Terminator and The Matrix. Living with robots in real life has been a completely different, far less dramatic story.

Most robots today—from the Roombas that vacuum our floors to those that assemble Tesla electric cars—go about their business without fuss or fanfare, and without much interaction with us ordinary humans. Things are about change though, as more consumer-focused companies from Google to Intel enter the robot race. GE's new online video series Invention Factory explores what's happening on the frontiers of robots research.

Before we get into that, it's worth noting how far robots have already come in such a short time. Only in the past 50 years or so have robots gone from fantasy to practical reality, as big companies increasingly put purpose-specific robots to work assembling cars, solar panels, food, cooking appliances, and countless other products.

Most of these industrial bots are very expensive and usually confined to one spot on the factory floor, chugging away all day at tasks that human laborers find repetitive and physically demanding. They're also typically impersonal looking—just a big arm or set of automated tools. As a consequence, many of us who don't work in heavy industry scarcely think about the robots that make our modern lives possible, not even the ones that make us pancakes.

But we're now on the cusp of a second robot revolution—one that will bring the bots out of the factories and into our daily lives, as this video from GE's Invention Factory reveals. Newer, cheaper, smarter, and more interactive robots are coming, aiming to do everything from our laundry to checking us into hotels to saving our lives in a disaster. While they may not be quite the affordable, personal mechanical servants envisioned in sci-fi—at least not yet—this new generation of robots promises to change the world in powerful, noticeable ways.

To begin with, robots are getting smarter. Scientists across the United States and around the world are designing robot software capable of "autonomous planning," that is, quickly evaluating changing circumstances and deciding which if any actions to take. This approach differs from the linear input/outputs that computers have traditionally relied on, and seeks to make robots think more like humans. Scientists are also designing robots that learn from experience and by imitating humans.

Robots are also changing in form, moving from bulky, heavy, potentially dangerous machines made of metal to objects made of composite materials that are smoother, lighter, even squishable in the case of soft robots. This will allow more robots to interact safely with humans, reducing the risk of people getting hurt or the robot getting damaged in the event of an accident. Making robots softer and lighter not only could lead to power savings and cost savings, but it could open up many new uses for them as well, letting them move faster and increasing their maneuverability.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly of all, robots are becoming more affordable and personal. While sales of robotic vacuum cleaners and consumer drones continue to climb, some companies like Rethink Robotics and Willow Garage are already selling affordable, programmable robots to many other businesses and researchers around the country. Other companies are marketing robots for use in home as personal assistants handling everything from climate control to scheduling, including the much-hyped startup Robotbase, which plans to begin shipments of its bot later this year.

Meanwhile, industrial robots are only going to become more commonplace. Right now, robots do about 10 percent of all manufacturing work globally; in ten years, they'll be doing 25 percent of it, according to the Boston Consulting Group. So you shouldn't be surprised if one day in the near future, you find yourself spending as much time during your days with robots as you do with fellow humans.