Robots Made Real - Through Innovation

Does anyone remember Steve the Butler? He was a totally rad toy in 1986, to be sure. Today? Embarrassing to say you owned him.

But at the time, Steve the Butler was far more accessible to the average person than, say, TOMY’s wireless Omnibot 2000. Now that robot was pretty nifty, although I, like most kids, knew it only from the photo in the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalog because it was $600.

Today, robots not only are more accessible, they’re also becoming almost commonplace. Robot innovation since the days of Steve the Butler and the Omnibot 2000 has been remarkable, and yet, not that surprising. Robot characters (some lovable, some not) are so entrenched in our collective psyche that we already accept they will exist, and that we almost have a responsibility to make it happen — to help them become real.

The robots already among us

Much of the innovation we see today in robotic technology stems from government-funded programs, like NASA, or defense initiatives. But there are also serious innovators in academia and private industry advancing the field of robotics. In just the past two decades, roboticists have introduced us to:

  • Aibo, the robot dog, from Sony — no longer commercially available because, well, it was very expensive, and you can get a real dog for much, much less.
  • The Roomba. You’re laughing? OK, but it’s a home robotics milestone. More than 10 million of us are using them today. That we roll our eyes at the Roomba and think “how boring” underscores the fact that robots are beginning to blend seamlessly into the fabric of our lives. (Some experts also point to the Nest thermostat as another example of home robotics because it manipulates the environment and has the ability to “learn.”)
  • Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO. Its creators have big plans for making ASIMO “an assistant robot that can exist among humans in a household, just like a primary schoolchild who starts helping out around the home.” Check out our interactive art director Tom Schreiber's great video of ASIMO in action from Disneyland.
  • Pepper, a robot developed by Japanese tech giant SoftBank, is designed to understand and react to human emotions, and someday could help care for children and the elderly.
  • UBR-1 from Unbounded Robotics is what the Omnibot 2000 only dreamed it could be (and Steve the Butler, if he could’ve cut loose from his cord). This $35,000 “mobile manipulator” not only can carry beverages, but also fetch them. UBR-1 can set the dinner table and unload the dishwasher, too.

While many advanced modern robots are still only accessible to a few, Roombas, Nests, and other types of more “basic” robots are all becoming more visible in our everyday lives. In fact, you might even encounter a robot while you’re out to dinner. Restaurant chain Yo! Sushi made headlines around the world by using drones to deliver its new line of Yo! Burgers to diners at its Soho, London, restaurant. Known as the iTray, and controlled by an Apple iPad app, the drones can fly to tables up to 50 feet away, returning to remove diners’ plates when finished.

We can also pass robots on the road. There’s the growing population of Google cars, of course — although some people admit having difficulty adjusting to their presence. Robotic cars are also preparing to cruise select cities in London in 2015. (And awesome robotic car races in the Mojave Desert? Those are already yesterday’s news.)

Reading, writing, robotics

Learning about robotics isn’t just for grad students at top engineering schools these days. More universities and colleges are offering undergraduate programs in robotics.  At Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), for example, more than 50 full-time faculty work at CMU’s Robotics Institute. They conduct research into robotics and related fields such as space robotics, computer graphics, medical robotics, computer vision, and artificial intelligence.

Some students don’t even have to wait for college to start laying the groundwork for a future career in robotics. Harvard University graduate Jutiki Gunter founded Robotics for Fun in Oakland, Calif., in 2004, a year-round learning environment for children in all aspects of robotics.  Gunter, a robotics teacher at nearby Chabot Space and Science Center, felt too few classes were being taught at schools where kids could learn about robotics.

If you dig robotics, and want to take your projects out of the garage and into industry, now’s the time to think about getting serious. Over the next five years, the robotics industry is expected to create over one million new jobs. Of course, this is not to say you still can’t build really awesome robots in your garage, if you want to.