The future of robotics: Not quite magical yet, but more than just dirty jobs

Summary:Experts argue that, up until now, robots have been limited to jobs in the following three realms: dirty, dangerous or dull.


SAN FRANCISCO---When Amazon first unveiled in December its revolutionary delivery drone concept , Prime Air, reactions fell along a spectrum of awe, praise, skepticism, and fear.

Regardless of what anyone has said about the project since, one of the undeniable truths is that robots are being accepted into the mainstream as much more than something out of a science-fiction movie.

Robotic technology is here and ready to work.

In fact, robotic technology has been at work for some time now. But experts on a panel hosted by the Commonwealth Club on Wednesday suggested that robot-designated jobs could all have been labeled as one of the "three D's." Those would be dirty, dangerous or dull.

That's not the case anymore.

As another piece of recent evidence, just look at Google's recent acquisition of Boston Dynamics , which could be another moonshot or the future of Android .

Rich Mahoney, director of the robotics program at nonprofit research institute SRI International, remarked that he doesn’t view robots as an independent technology, but rather part of a technology continuum — notably a consumer electronics continuum.

Looking at how robots are evolving, Mahoney posited, we’re just beginning to see robots (or at least elements of robotics) in the physical world become more accessible and low-cost, highlighting integration on everything from low-emission vehicles (LEV) to video telepresence systems.

"Basically, when you want to move something from Point A to Point B, you need a road and a vehicle,” Santana explained, continuing that the brainstorm shifted toward determining whether or not they could just settle for a vehicle that "moves like the Internet."

Historically, one of the biggest barriers in bringing robots to the forefront was the platform, according to Brian Gerkey, CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation.

These days, Maloney concurred, robotics — much like any line of technology — starts with identifying a problem.

Maloney also pointed out that while robotics typically require many more resources (namely financial) compared to software startups, the required investment in hardware dropping dramatically, fueling the movement even further.

One of the most familiar types of robots in widespread circulation today is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), colloquially known as a drone.

NPR tech correspondent and panel moderator Steve Henn observed that drones might have a public relations problems to overcome first, largely due to military operations, commenting that there has been a large public backlash to just the word "drone."

Gersky followed up that drones present many more possibilities, but it depends on developing the right algorithms and software.

Delivery appears to be the frontrunner, based on Amazon Prime Air (or the satirical jab from Netflix) as well as a similiar program being tested in China as of last fall .

Entertainment might be another, given that Henn cited that many of the zero-gravity scenes in the Alfonso Cuarón's Oscar-nominated Gravity were made possible thanks to robotic technology.

Paola Santana, co-founder of drone network maker Matternet, said that one of the motivations for launching her business was to use robots to solve poverty in developing nations from the Caribbean to Africa.

In order to set up the organization and serve people in need, Santana described that Matternet wasn’t interested in investing in "traditional infrastructure models.”

"Basically, when you want to move something from Point A to Point B, you need a road and a vehicle,” Santana explained, continuing that the brainstorm shifted toward determining whether or not they could just settle for a vehicle that "moves like the Internet."

Robots satisfied that question, and Santana affirmed that the cost of launching approximately 150 of these unmanned drones in the same area was the same as building two-kilometer road.

"It was a no-brainer,” Santana said flatly.

But Santana stressed that "Matternet is not about drones," but rather having vehicles that can fly from landing stations, which help the drone to be “smart” so that they do not take off and fly forever. She noted that Matternet also developed its own software, which she said acts as a “corridor” in order to manage vehicles in the airspace in real-time.

But in referencing the dream of drones simply showing up at a doorstep dropping off packages like magic, Santana quipped, "It will not happen as Amazon showed in the commercial. There’s no way."

Topics: Hardware, Government, Social Enterprise, Tech Industry, Tech & Work


Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider,, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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