Dear Reader, I Have News for You: Robots Are Boring
This is a guest post. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the blogger and do not represent positions of Automaton, IEEE Spectrum, or the IEEE.
Automaton readers, I have news for you: Robots are boring.
There you have it. Yes, I said boring. Now let me explain what I mean.
Today, the tech press -- this blog included -- does a decent job covering robotics. They report on the latest quadruped or humanoid, tell us all about self-driving cars and robots that can fetch beer, and post videos of cats riding Roombas and quadrotors playing ping-pong. Cool.
But here's the problem: That's just part of the story. In fact, a small part. If we want to achieve a true robotics revolution, the reality is that the robots I mention above and others that the press likes to cover are not going to be enough. We need robots that can do everyday jobs, performing basic tasks over and over, safely and reliably. In other words, we need robots that will become so enmeshed in our lives that people stop paying attention to them: They will be ... boring.
I find that the tech press and people in general are not so inclined to become “excited” about boring robots. They should.
To make an analogy, consider the air travel industry. Today, the press no longer cares for successful round trips or tout the “miracle” of flying; instead, flying is an everyday routine that helps millions of ordinary people build business relationships, visit family and friends, journey around the world. What was once considered the epitome of human dreams and desires is now a commoditized, uninteresting service that people take for granted, with the only things we care about being paying less and avoiding hassle.
I won't say I didn't wish flying was a better experience. But the great thing about what happened to air travel is that it became accessible to millions of people. And that's the true commercial flight revolution. What about a true commercial robotics revolution? To get there what we need is for robots to become as routine and uninteresting as passenger flight has become in the past century.
Robots today are like the first airplanes. They are as remarkable a technical endeavor as flight once was, and current demonstrations are as entertaining (and unproductive) as the first airplane stunts once were: They're great to watch, but true global change lies in the hands of real products that are safe, affordable, and -- that's right -- boring.
Let me shamelessly plug my own employer here. I work for Adept Technology, based in Pleasanton, Calif., the biggest U.S. industrial robotics company. Some of our robots have been featured in the tech press, because, yes, they make for cool videos. But let me introduce you to a “very boring” autonomous mobile robot platform called the Adept MT400 [photo above].
This is a small mobile vehicle designed for human environments. Basically it just roams around, commanded through push buttons, sensors, tablets, or smartphones, while avoiding bumping into people and objects. We're offering this little guy for third-party developers, including end-users, integrators, researchers, and entrepreneurs, who are interested in developing applications for it.
Back to the air travel analogy, we're like an aircraft manufacturer looking for an airline -- a partner to build a service that can attract customers and become a promising business.
The MT400 is just one example, of course. What we need from robotics companies and roboticists everywhere are more boring robots: Robots that would be most appreciated when they complete a task in a manner that is smooth and economical; robots that investors and companies can trust building business models around.
What will the future look like when, similar to flying, robots become boring enough for companies to create services that help millions and millions of people? I don't know for sure, but I do know it won't be boring.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know.
Erin Rapacki is a product marketing manager at Adept Technology. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Photo illustration: Street crossing photo: neovain via Flickr; robot photo: Adept Technology. Photo of MT400: Adept Technology