Last July, I wrote an article titled, "Robby the Robot Returns," which dealt with everything from my childhood love for the very first robot I ever thought was real, "Robby," to today’s bots and learning computers like IBM’s Watson.
In the piece, I concluded with the statement, “…in the years since I first got to know him, it appears that Robby the Robot has spawned a robotic reality that far exceeds anything we use to call sci-fi.”
That robotic reality is flying in terms of how quickly it's migrating into our lives. Let me give you a few examples.
If you happen to be a fan of "Star Trek," you know that all of our Star Trek heroes and heroines operate within something called the "United Federation of Planets (UFP)." It was the outgrowth of our earthly "Space Administration" expanded by universal concerns involving members of other planetary species.
In many of the newer "Star Trek" features, they simply refer to the UFP as the "Federation."
Well, did you know there really is something called the “International Federation of Robotics,” also known as the IFR for short?
Perhaps Jiegao Wang, IFR Executive Board Member and GM of ESTUN Robotics in China, said it best, “The IFR has established itself as the benchmark for robotics in the world. It provides a communication platform among world-class robotics companies on new market trends and technological developments."
The IFR and its members are at the center of robotics in our world. As part of their responsibility, they decide the various definitions and requirements for the classification of robots.
Industrial robots typically are defined by the IFR as "automatically controlled, reprogrammable multi-purpose manipulators working in three or more axes." They have been around in one form or fashion for years.
I remember the first time I saw one of the giant arms at a General Motors plant. It was grabbing parts and holding them in place as another industrial robot welder finalized the fastening to the chassis.
I found it took hours and hours of programming to make the two perform their jobs. And then even more hours of programming to make them work in concert.
Today, such programming can be done in seconds because of the depth of machine learning by the computers driving the robots.
The IFR defines a service robot as one that performs useful tasks for humans or equipment, excluding industrial automation applications.
Within the character of these service robots, the criteria for such a robot require “a degree of autonomy,” which is further defined as “the ability to perform tasks based upon the current state and sensing, without human intervention.”
At present, the applicability of this standard ranges from partial autonomy, including human robot interaction, all the way to full autonomy, in which the robot operations are performed without any active human interaction.
These service robots are further defined as being either "personal" or "professional" use. The IFR recently reported it expected there to be 31 million household robots in service by 2019.
Did you hear that? Within two years, there will be 31 million robots in our homes.
One of those robots might be the home version of "Flippy," a robotic kitchen assistant that in the commercial version has been proven to cook burgers at fast-food restaurants more efficiently and at less cost than human cooks. Perhaps I can have a Flippy setup at my outdoor gas grill. He can just keep flippin' burgers for every pool party this summer?
Now, if the IFR is talking about my "Roomba," that's an entirely different matter. I had to spend weeks setting up all the infrared roadblocks to ensure that robot went where he needed to go to keep the floors swept. It was either that, or he would just spin in circles bumping into the legs of the Grand Piano.
I definitely wouldn’t say my Roomba has any real autonomy.
But the reality is that not only are the robots coming, they have already arrived in many places. And the robot advisors are driven by smart computers that do things like accounting chores and analyze taxes.
And that's just the beginning.
Clearly, we're headed toward a future of robots working in almost every aspect of our lives –not just as bots built into our smartphones and tablets, but real tangible robots like Robby the Robot and friends.
For example, how many of you or someone in your family have a toy drone?
In the near future, literally millions of drones will bring robotic like qualities to business, agriculture, retail and self-protection.
Envision being at a neighborhood park and your dog is attacked by a vicious stray dog. Rather than attempting to break up the attack, your personal protection drone swoops down to pepper-spray the offending animal.
Let's carry that one step further. You're approached by a mugger in the shopping center parking lot and your personal robot foils the attack.
Do you remember robot GORT from the first "Day the Earth Stood Still" film back in 1951?
In that movie, the alien visitor told our world leaders it had created a race of robots that patrolled the planets in flying saucers (an interstellar police force). They had been granted irrevocable powers to "preserve the peace.”
Perhaps in a not too distant future the policeman who pulls your autonomously driven car over for driving out of sequence will be a robot named Gort.
While these are just glimpses of the robot revolution, the reality is that robot proliferation is growing at a stellar pace. Literally billions of dollars (in every currency imaginable) are being spent to develop the technology.
We may be further from a "Star Trek" 'Data' (like) android then we are a Robby-like robot, but you can bet there are great minds and healthy investors dreaming of the day when such a human-like robot is the norm, rather than the exception.
While nobody can predict how rapidly robots will spread across the world into our lives, or exactly what configuration and responsibilities they take on, they're likely to far exceed the Robby of my younger years.
Personal robotic assistant
PS – Here's a late thought. I just realized I have another great robot. In fact, I shoved him into my swimming pool this morning. He's my robotic pool cleaner. And while he does require me to plug him in and put him in the pool over and over again, he does a fantastic job. It's something that would take me hours. So, perhaps there are useful robots in our future.