Robots seemed to be popping up left and right in articles, so I started wondering if we were entering the Age of Robots. I looked around, and I thought “maybe not.” Certainly, the general-purpose autonomous robot has not entered my life. Apparently, we are closing in on four million domestic robots, but I’ve never actually run across one in use. An additional million are at work in factories, well out of view. (For a reason – even in their limited environments, these machines can be dangerous. Even without invoking science fiction scenarios, accidents happen. In fact, the first death-by-robot occurred 30 years ago!)
As I was poking around, I got a sense of déjà vu. When virtual reality emerged, it captured the imaginations of many people, putting augmented reality into its shadow. But the impact on our lives, at least in the near term, of augmented reality is likely to be much larger. After all, augmented reality brings humans into the picture and transforms the material world we all live in.
In a similar way, “extension robotics” – electromechanical tools that allow me to act more precisely, more powerfully and over greater distances – are likely become ubiquitous. There impact will be broad and transformative. (It occurs to me that a car, especially one souped up with microprocessors, fits the definition of extension robotics. I’m not especially bothered by that, but I’ll restrict myself to examples that apply the lessons of traditional robotics to non-autonomous tools.)
Looking toward the future, I’d expect more guided robots, like military drones or the iRobot ground robots. We’ll see very direct human-machine interfaces like robotic limbs and strength-magnifying exoskeletons. And we’ll see specialized help from robotics, like robotic surgery systems .
Autonomous robots have been made to walk, crawl, swim, and fly. Everything they have done is on its way to us, through extension robotics. It may be that people with physical limits, such as the aged and disabled, will be the first to benefit. But before long, extension robotics will become as much a part of our lives as cars.