There is a critical mass of innovation and momentum in robotics right now. Global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are investing billions of dollars in development. Industry 4.0 is making cost-effective mass production feasible. Machine learning, the "internet of things" (IoT), and cloud computing are solving the tech and control issues. And there is a labor shortage in the developed world, driving need.
But how long will it be before smart, autonomous, mobile, humanoid robots capable of taking on multiple complex tasks hit the market? And when will the price point be reasonable?
Affordable robots are here
Boston Dynamics, the company that makes the robots you may have seen dancing and performing on YouTube, was recently acquired by Hyundai. The company already has an inspection robot called Spot, commercially available for just $75,000. And last month, Elon Musk announced that the Tesla Bot humanoid robot prototype will be launched in 2022.
Futurists therefore predict that fully functioning humanoid personal and professional service robots will be with us within a few years. But they also tend to underestimate the complexity of creating a device that can function in radically different environments.
Autonomous vehicles finally handle traffic
A robot that can cook successfully in a test kitchen, where all the equipment and ingredients are always in the same place, won't be able to cook in your kitchen until it is able to sense and determine exactly where everything is. It also must be able to deal with unexpected changes to the environment, like your dog begging for scraps, and identify different ingredients and spices as well as fresh and bad food.
Building that level of sensitivity and differentiating "intelligence" into the robot and control systems is complex. The first truly autonomous vehicles were developed by Navlab at Carnegie Mellon in 1984. To get from there to cars that can navigate different streets with different levels of traffic and unpredictable drivers and pedestrians has taken 37 years.
Robots: The thousand-year project
It won't be 37 years before we have robots that can cook and clean for us, though. A lot of the advances in autonomous vehicles are directly applicable to robots, and labs have been working on robots in parallel. In fact, humans have been working on robots for literally thousands of years. The artisan Yan Shi reputedly made humanoid mechanical automata that could sing and dance more than 3,000 years ago!
Technological momentum is increasing
There are still complex problems to solve, but those solutions are in sight. Advances in artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning combined with cloud computing mean that one semi-smart cloud-based control system can operate and manage millions of robots centrally. Geospatial mapping tools like GeoSLAM allow robots to scan, map, and navigate complex and changing environments. Smart prosthetics have provided robot manufacturers with templates and proven technology for smart robot limbs, hands, feet, and fingers.
Micro-sensors allow robots to sense temperature, pressure, torque, acceleration, velocity, humidity, sound, magnetic fields, radiation, and optical, biological, biomedical, and chemical parameters -- like, for example, food going bad. And micro-actuators allow them to operate with dexterity, so you can trust them to handle your grandmother's best china and even delicate fruit, without bruising it.
The first humanoid robots -- coming soon
At Pepper Foster, we predict that the first relatively limited but still multi-functional humanoid professional service robots will be launched within five to seven years. The initial price point will be high but still compelling. Robots can work three or four times as many hours per week as a human, so a robot priced at roughly $200,000 will return on investment (ROI) within two to three years.
Personal service robots marketed to consumers will likely arrive five years later. Mass production and financing will bring the price point down to the cost of owning a car. And, if consumer adoption patterns match those of other high-priced but desirable products, we will see 50 to 70 percent of U.S. households owning or leasing a personal service robot by 2050.
It's not quite the Jetsons, but the long dreamed about future of robot labor is almost here.