David Calkins predicts the future of robotics

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David Calkins predicts the future of robotics

The RoboGames founder says robot hordes are coming to our homes and workplaces but we're unlikely to recognise them when they get there.

Our concept of human-like robots have come a long way since C-3PO graced the silver screen in 1977.

But despite advances in programming, batteries and motor efficiency big, multitasking androids may remain a fantasy.

David Calkins, a leading roboticist and founder of RoboGames, says the robots that will permeate future homes may be unrecognisable to us.

At the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference in San Jose last week, Calkins spoke about his expectations for widespread adoption of robots at home, work, in hospitals and schools over the next ten years.

iTnews sat down with Calkins to get his take on where robotics is heading.

How is robotics viewed by the tech industry?

Robotics is certainly 'the next big thing'; much like PCs in the '80s, operating systems in the '90s, and the Internet the past 10 years.

And, just like the above, there are major problems to overcome. It won't be a matter of getting C-3PO overnight. Like search engines, we'll have to start with Gopher and crawl our way to Lycos, long before we see Alta Vista or Google.

What are the leading companies researching and developing robotics?

Japanese robot creator TMSUK, Massachusetts-based iRobot and Sony.

Like all new consumer categories, there is a huge lag time for mass production. It took CDs a very long time to catch on and become mainstream before players and the discs were affordable.

And robotics has greater hurdles to overcome: artificial intelligence, motion, battery life and CPU cycles. Imagine if Google had to invent RAM, CPUs, and the internet as well as a search engine.

Roboticists have a lot of new tech to develop before robots worth buying can be mass-produced.

What's the current situation?

Still very nascent and very big. Talking about 'the field of robotics' is like talking about 'the field of transportation'. It's not limited to cars, trucks, and motorcycles; transportation includes boats and planes and space shuttles and bikes and Nike shoes.

So goes it with robots. You can't really compare an Aibo, a Roomba, a packbot and Stanley. They're very different products.

Are there any robots from RoboGames that you feel have the potential to change the world?

Tetsujin [robotic body suits] is probably the biggest thing.

I can see wheelchairs being obsolete in 20 years. If you're crippled, why sit down and have to look up at the world when you can strap on an 'Iron Man' suit and walk around like everyone? And if you can only lift 100 pounds [45.4 kilograms], why not be able to lift 1000 [pounds]?

Of course, the humanoid robots - now as big as 2 feet [61 centimetres] and being made in garages by normal people - are pretty incredible. But just because they move like humans doesn't mean that they can think like humans or think at all.

What is the biggest issue facing roboticists?

'Solving the problem'. Having a humanoid robot is really cool but if it can only walk around and avoid obstacles, it's not very useful.

You want it to do the dishes and clean the floors. But if it breaks all the dishes because it rubs too hard or doesn't get them clean because it rubs too lightly it's worthless. And it's hard telling an AI [artificial intelligence] algorithm the difference between a wine stain in your carpet and a paisley pattern in your carpet.

How do you think robotics will advance in the next 10 years?

Across the board. Walking robots will get bigger and cheaper, AI will get better and more accessible, sensors will become more accurate, smaller, and cheaper and eventually they'll all come together.

What was the biggest advance in robotics over the past 10 years?

Battery life and motor efficiency. It's something most people talk for granted but if a robot can't move around for longer than 15 minutes it's worthless.

We're only now getting to the point were you can have a robot, wheeled or legged, than can last long enough and recharge quickly enough to be useful.

How did you become interested in robots?

R2-D2. Everyone says it, but it's true.

What do you expect from robots in your lifetime?

It's more likely that we'll have several small, single-task-oriented robots in the home than we will a large, multitasking android.

What will future robots look like -- will they be C-3POs, R2-D2s, or something different altogether?

Both. Star Wars was good in that it showed many robots. Just as you have a refrigerator, washer, dryer, dishwasher, vacuum, TV, DVD, CD player and PC - which couldn't have been imagined by your grandparents - so will we have many robots in the home that we cannot imagine.

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