Only the Swarmanoid Survive

Andy Grove, the former CEO and chairman of Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) , is famous for saying "Only the paranoid survive." In the preface of his book of the same name, Grove clarified that while he was paranoid about products not working, factories not performing well, or hiring the wrong people, he worried most about what he called "strategic inflection points" -- times when a business's fundamentals are about to change.

I couldn't help but think about this message, and how it might apply to Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) , as I read two articles about robotic technology this morning.

The first announced that within the next two to three years, researchers in South Korea say they will have produced the first fully functional walking and talking android. According to the article, the android will look like a young Korean woman, and it will be able to hold a conversation and make a range of facial expressions.

In many ways, this is exactly what many of us envision robots ultimately becoming -- replicas of ourselves. Perhaps so, but I don't believe that such androids represent the future of robotics.

I base this prediction on the findings of the second article, which documented how researchers in Brussels are now trying to build and test a swarm of smaller robots called a swarmanoid. Under this scenario, different robots would operate as either footbots, handbots, or eyebots. No one robot could do everything (as an android could), but working in tandem, they could accomplish a wide range of useful tasks.

For instance, an eyebot could identify an item you wanted delivered -- say, a book or a TV remote. The handbot would climb up on your shelf and grab it, then deliver it to a footbot, which would quickly transport it to you. This is just a crude example, but it conveys the general idea.

Of the two visions for robotics, I believe swarmanoids are both more feasible and realistic. I do believe that researchers will be able to create human-looking robots someday, but I don't think many people will want them. The principle known as the "Uncanny Valley" states that the more humanlike any artificial creation becomes -- whether it's an android or a computer-generated animation -- the more likely it is to creep people out, because it still doesn't duplicate the wealth of subtle motions and details our brains associate with human beings.

Robotic manufacturers such as Foster-Miller, Hitachi (NYSE: HIT  ) , Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , and iRobot -- which is already successfully creating robots that can vacuum, scrub floors, and even detect roadside bombs in Iraq -- may find great opportunity in developing other small, inexpensive robots that can work together to perform new and more varied jobs.

The robotic industry is at a strategic inflection point, and I believe that companies pursuing a swarmanoid-like strategy will be the most likely to survive and prosper in the future.

Further Foolishness for humans and androids alike:

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Fool contributorJack Uldrichisn't paranoid about robots, but he will be when they begin constantly watching him in the future. Jack owns stock in iRobot. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool'sdisclosure policyalways computes.


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