If you're a science fiction fan, or married to one, you've probably watched Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, and I, Robot. Widely entertaining, these shows revolve around the premise that humans create machines, and somewhere along the line, the machines become self-aware and turn on their human masters. Luckily, these stories are relegated to the land of fiction. However, the rise of robotics is not. In fact, RoboEarth recently announced that it's developed an open source cloud engine called Rapyuta, which will allow robots to share knowledge and learn from each other. While this news might be creating nightmarish visions of SkyNet, it also presents a potential investor gold mine, as robotics could be akin to the next PC or iPhone. Here's what you need to know.
Believe it or not, robots already play a part in human life. iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT ) makes robots like the Roomba vacuum, and FirstLook, a robot the military can use for situational awareness. Companies like Hansen Medical (NASDAQ: HNSN ) and Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ: ISRG ) make medical-assisting robots that aid in complex surgeries. And companies like ABB (NYSE: ABB ) make manufacturing and industrial robots. Whereas these robots probably don't conjure images of Cylons or T-1000s, they are robots nonetheless, and part of a progression in technology.
The next steps in this progression are robots that can adapt to their environment, react to changes, and alter their behavior, all without human intervention. One such robot is Baxter, a robot made by Rethink Robotics. This robot is mainly for manufacturing companies, and was designed so that instead of going overseas for cheap labor, companies could stay stateside and use robots in their manufacturing plants, with humans overseeing the robots.
Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics' CEO, said that he believes robots "will become as common place in our lives as turning to a search engine is today," and that as technology progresses, robots will become cheaper and more adaptive to their environments, allowing the average person to train robots to do everyday tasks – like the dishes.
This is where cloud computing, Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) Goggles -- an image recognition service for mobile devices, and cloud storage, and Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT ) Kinect, come into play. As Brooks stated, a goal in robotics is to create inexpensive robots that can do everyday tasks. But one of the problems has been object recognition. However, researchers at Berkeley have developed a custom version of Goggles that runs on Google's image recognition system that will facilitate training and recognition. According to the researchers: "The training endpoint accepts 2D images of objects with labels identifying the object. The recognition endpoint accepts an image, and based on the set of features, either returns the object's identifier along with a probability of correctness, or reports failure."
In other words, cameras, along with Microsoft's Kinetics, allow the robot to take pictures and create 3-D scans of objects. Then, images are uploaded via the cloud. Based on the return information, the robot can grasp the object, and move it to its appropriate place. Following a successful run, the information can be stored via the cloud for future use.
One robot that's already doing this is Willow Garage's PR2. Capable of doing a variety of household chores, the PR2 uses an open-source robot operating system, or ROS, and is a platform for "experimentation and innovation". The reason inventors of the PR2 made it open-source, is that they want robotics programmers to improve on codes that have already been used, thus allowing the technology to move forward faster. Incidentally, this also brings us closer to the ideal of personal robots for everyone – everyone who can afford one.
And make no mistake: That's the goal. Leila Takayama, a researcher at Willow Garage, says that she hopes robots become "unremarkable" in society, and "[that] they're just so useful, just so faded into the background that we don't notice that they're there all the time." To help further that intention, Takayama is researching how to make robots more "human-friendly" and has even teamed up with an animator and sound designer at Disney's Pixar Animation Studios.
Of course, there's a way to go before robots become as commonplace as, say, a cell phone. Among other things, robots have to be able to adapt to different environments, and then there's the whole safety thing – no one wants a dangerous 'bot. But with RoboEarth's recent announcement, that day could be a bit closer. Markus Waibel, one of the researchers at RoboEarth, describes Rapyuta as a sort of Wikipedia, or brain, for robots. The goal, he states, is to create a proof-of-concept demonstration that shows how robots can perform beyond their preprogrammed behaviors and speed up learning. Additionally, he states that this would allow robots to adapt to the "complexities of human environments".
Waibel goes on to state that this concept is similar to Google's, but different in that Google's isn't geared toward robots, and has limitations such as parsing scenes. Additionally, Rapyuta allows robots to learn from the experiences of other robots, which in theory could make the robots smarter as they generate data. Waibel admits that this conjures images of SkyNet, but he assures people that's not possible, as the robots aren't communicating with each other; They're communicating with a "centralized computing infrastructure run by humans". Phew...
You can run, but you can't hide
At this point, readers might be traumatized by visions of homicidal terminators. But let's remember -- that's fiction, not reality. The reality is that robots could very well be the next big thing in technology. Yes, right now they're expensive, and they don't work like we'd like them too, but computers had the same problems not too long ago. As technology progresses, and robots become more functional, we'll likely see them in expanding roles, whether defense, medical, manufacturing, or personal. Consequently, investing in robotics now could be akin to investing in Apple or Microsoft before they took off – and, seriously, who doesn't want a personal servant?
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