Robotics experts will be gathering in Boston this week for the 2018 Robotics Summit and Showcase. It’s an event targeted at professionals, but robots are becoming a bigger and bigger presence in all of our lives. We spoke with Steve Crowe, editor of The Robot Report, to get a preview.
So, what is a robot, anyway? “There’s no universal answer,” said Crowe. “If you took ten of the world’s leading roboticists – you’d have ten different answers." The writers at the Robot Report follow the paradigm of, “sense, think, and act." So, it’s a robot if it can sense what’s going on around it by seeing and feeling. If it can “think” it’s a robot. That's processing what is sees and feels. Also, if it’s able to act based off of the information it gathered, they’d also consider it a robot. Robots are typically thought of as boxy and hard, but "soft robots" are becoming more popular. They're what they sound like--robots made from soft materials. They have a variety of different benefits, like a gripper that can handle fragile things like eggs, and an exoskeleton that can help people walk. It's "bio-inspired engineering that resemble nature,” Crowe said. While the industry is young, it's an area to watch. Speaking of a young industry, where do these robots get created? Crowe says that they keep track of investments in robotics and $2.3 billion have been invested in robotics companies. "Most of the innovation happens at the university level," Crowe said. "iRobot spun out of MIT, Soft Robotics spun out of Harvard, Right Hand Robotics started at Harvard and Yale, and Boston Dynamics was out of MIT." Innovation is happening in schools, but when it’s time to make them into a consumer product, they're developed in the private sector because its better funded, Crowe said. But even with all that development going on, there just aren’t a lot of robots in our homes yet. “Besides a vacuuming robot, they’re not close to being here in a useful way,” he said. A big reason for is that consumer robots can’t yet be produced in an affordable way. So, most robotics are heading to manufacturing and e-commerce settings, instead. "They’re good right now at repetitive tasks," Crowe said. It’s no secret that those robots have taken manufacturing jobs away. But it's not just factory jobs that are being lost. There are other examples. "Self-driving cars and taxis are becoming mainstream," he said, adding that automation at grocery store checkout lines and automated toll takers on the highway have also taken jobs. Crowe believes that while robots may make some jobs obsolete, new jobs will be created. “We need to make sure people are trained and educated to take those jobs," he said.