Beyond Hollywood: The Future of Robotics Isn’t What You’re Expecting

by Adam Ellison
- Sep 28 2015 - 5 min read
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Robots have been disappointing us for a long time.

The high expectations set by authors such as Isaac Asimov and optimistic Hollywood screenwriters simply haven’t materialized. But now, with smartphone technology and wireless connectivity, a new generation of robots is disrupting the world. The industry is on the brink of a new era that will change the day-to-day lives of individuals, not to mention the way business and manufacturing are done. You might say robots are in again.

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Adam Ellison with a Modbot prototype. Courtesy Modbot.

At Modbot, the company I co-founded with my business partner, Daniel Pizzata, it’s my job to look at the future of robotics through both consumer and business lenses. It’s not hard to see the impact science fiction has had on consumers’ expectations of robots; most of these future robotic visions are anthropomorphized as relatable characters, which feeds into that strong human desire to build empathy with machines, expressed most recently by the Hollywood blockbuster Ex Machina.

This may seem sentimental, but in reality, the crossover of human-to-robot interactions is indeed gaining strength. There are numerous examples of how robotic technology is entering daily life, from performing service functions like hotel-room delivery to staffing an entire hotel in Japan. The aged-care sector will grow massively, in the western world first and in China shortly afterward. Google’s self-driving car is another great example. And the industrial world—one of the ripest places for robotics to skyrocket—is on the cusp of incredible advancements beyond anything seen before on the factory floor.

But all of these robots in all of these different scenarios simply won’t look like their Hollywood incarnations. The reality? Robots will start out like LEGO pieces that anyone can mix and match to find solutions. People will communicate with machines in entirely new ways—not just ordering them around like they do on The Jetsons or pushing buttons on a control panel.

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Courtesy Modbot

Consider this scenario: A retail display store in San Francisco collects foot-traffic data and combines that with weather data to predict demand. Without human intervention, a warehouse robot in Shenzhen, China, starts picking components and directly notifies suppliers’ robots in Korea, Japan, and Israel to start producing the specialized components that are required to build up stock. The predicted retail rush materializes. The supply chain is managed in a completely lean and autonomous fashion. Talk about automation!

Robotic technology’s immediate future is destined to be modular, ubiquitous, and connected. Here’s how.

Modular. When I was a child, LEGO was my favorite toy because one day I could build an excavator and the next day, using the same parts, build a helicopter. What if building robots could be just as simple and versatile—using components like those brightly colored bricks—without sacrificing performance?

Modularity means flexibility, reconfigurability, and reusability, with its associated cost-reduction potential. Most of all, it means being intuitive to use. To be truly modular, a robot must be reduced to the smallest number of modules possible, standardizing the mechanical, electrical, and communications interfaces among those modules. Modbot has studied the fundamental kinematics of robotic systems and discovered that a useful robot can be built with just three fundamental parts, which we call the servo, link, and joint.

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Example of a servo, link, and joint. Courtesy Modbot.

This modular approach of standardized parts for customizable solutions makes the creation of new robotic solutions cheaper, faster, and accessible to more people. If this promise holds true, it won’t be long before these modules are available and used everywhere. They will become ubiquitous.

Ubiquitous. I love that word. Just as personal computers have come a long way from their workplace origins, robots have begun their march out of heavy factories and into smaller, less industrial environments, even finding their way into homes. For manufacturers, this means affordable and flexible automation, from raw materials all the way to the retail environment.

Facilitating this movement are open-source software projects such as the Robot Operating System (ROS), which is used by Rethink Robotics and others, as well as new products like those from Modbot.

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Modbot under development. Courtesy Modbot.

But ubiquity starts with robots’ components. At their most fundamental level, robots require three things: sensors, logic, and actuators. The old era of buying a large robot, installing it, and paying it off over several years is no longer compatible with a lean manufacturer’s needs. That model leads to getting stuck competing on margins and losing focus on solving the customer’s problem. Consider this: GM is a car company; Uber is a transportation company. Which one is closer to the customer’s problem? Hardware alone is no longer enough. To truly solve the customer’s problem, the hardware has to create information and use that information intelligently. That’s where connectedness comes in.

Connected. If the power of this new robotics era lies in information (and it does), manufacturers must look at how at how that information flows around. Naturally, it’s the cloud.

Everyone’s talking about the cloud these days. It allows for remote and scalable processing on demand, just like the new robotics technology on the horizon. With distributed sensors, this enhances capability while keeping everyone constantly connected, just like smartphones and tablets can now stay constantly connected to SaaS providers. Distributed computational power and centralized control provide ease of access; increased versatility; and, over time, improved performance.

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Interior of Tesla Model S. Courtesy Tesla Motors.

Take Tesla, for example. The company sends out software upgrades to its cars to increase performance and fuel efficiency, even adding new features like semiautonomous driving. Similarly, robotics companies could soon deliver software upgrades to robots over their networks to optimize any component based on operational data.

This connectedness also enables real-time monitoring and control, allowing prediction of both productivity and failures, as well as automation of manufacturing based on demand. Think about it: When robots are connected to the cloud and to each other, they reverse the idea of depreciating assets. A continuous stream of new capabilities becomes possible, and robots can actually improve over time.

Robot Revolution. The first personal computers to come along were cumbersome, bulky, and hard to use. Yet, even with those limitations, they changed the world. Now, the same is happening for robotics.

Robots will soon be lightweight, easy to program, and reconfigurable. They will be global. And they’ll age much more gracefully with regular software boosts. Entrenched robotics players must take notice because this disruption is happening. The future of robotics is here—and it’s beyond what Hollywood could even begin to imagine.

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