The Robotics Age Is Closer Than We Think

I recently watched a video released from Caterpillar Industries regarding their new autonomous truck. After watching gigantic vehicles hauling tons of dirt throughout a mining obstacle course without any drivers at the wheel, a very fitting tagline for the video appears: the future has arrived.

Wanting to be a robotics engineer myself, I am constantly reading robotics articles on IEEE Spectrum: articles about a Quadrotor that can climb up walls; drones that can locate unexploded bombs; robotic technologies to guard the home instead of a canine; even robots that can locate items and guide customers to these items in a commercial store. Bottom line: as far as robots go, the future arrived years ago.

But I know I'm one of the few that is aware of how many universities and organizations have robotics technology already in the wings. Those that aren't reading IEEE Spectrum articles (or any robotics websites for that matter) are unaware of how close robotics technology is to becoming a reality. The future may have arrived on Australia's mining scene and many university robotics labs, but what about in modern society?

With these great robotics technologies available, yet no obvious integration into our society as of yet, I can't help to think that our society, although fascinated by the greatest and newest iPhone, would prefer to keep robotic technology out of our lives. We are fine with machines or simple computer software aiding us in our lives, but as soon as we cross the line to artificial intelligence--where these machines and software programs can learn or adapt and actually become the definition of a robot -- that's where we become less enthused.

And why would we be? After movies like IRobot, where vastly intelligent humanoids turn against humans, or HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey series, our society is basically primed to be wary of the idea of intelligence inside something beyond skin.

Yet we can never advance or better our society if we keep this barrier up against robots. One of the main and obvious concerns, I know, goes beyond just the idea that robots will "take over the world", but more that they will take over our jobs. What many of us don't understand, however, is that integration of robotic technology into the work force will lead to more technology-based jobs. For example, Momentum Machines -- a robotics company based in San Francisco -- has been working for years to develop a system that outputs the perfect hamburger. Momentum Machines is well aware of how their new product will eliminate occupations in the food industry. To replace these lost jobs, the company states:

We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how: education. Our goal is to offer discounted technical training to any former line cook of a restaurant that uses our device. We will certainly need more engineers to design new devices and technicians to service a growing line of automated restaurant solutions. These are the minds that can do this job.

Now obviously this may not be true for everyone. There may in fact be job loss from the oncoming of the robotics era; that is the nature of the beast. If we can integrate this advanced technology, however, and make that transition to better educate our society to operate or understand robotics, then we achieve the ultimate goal of robotics. There may be a few years of adjustment, but if we don't jump in and grab hold of the robotics age, it will never happen.

With the job displacement scare aside, the fact of the matter is robotics technology can significantly improve our lives. And most of that technology already exists. Autonomous vehicle technology is already developed, and could be driven beyond the confines of Google headquarters or Australia's mining grounds. Drones that can save elephants, rhinos or other endangered species, and even our own race from undetected bombs, are already tested; robots that can watch cooking videos and learn from that video how to make a recipe exist; even entertainment bots that can catch and throw baseballs or juggle.

The robotics age is here; until our society accepts the great advancements artificial intelligence offers, however, the new and grand future that has arrived will not continue forward. For the Robotics Age to become a reality, we must first embrace it.