Looking back over history it can be seen that there are a number of key technological innovations, which form the basis of whole new areas of research and development. An early example is the steam engine, introduced in the late 18th century, it allowed previously manual operation, such as the use of weaving machines to be automated, this resulted in a huge growth in industry which eventually led to the industrial revolution. A more modern day innovation that has revolutionised the communication industry is the mobile phone. Popularised in the early 1990’s the mobile phone has not only changed the way in which people communicate, it has also sparked demand for both wireless communication and portability in other devices.
With all this is mind, we can make predictions on how robotics will progress in the future by looking at the areas where technology has not made the advancements that other areas have. Three of the main areas are:
- Battery life, size and weight
- Artificial intelligence (Replicating human levels of intelligence)
- Swarm Robotics
Of the three you may think that battery and other power technology is trivial, however, for mobile robots it is one of the main design considerations, as the battery is usually the heaviest piece of equipment on the robot. If in the future power sources were seriously scaled down this would allow for much smaller and longer lasting robots, which could be used to complete useful long term tasks such as clear-up operations or exploration.
The second area is artificial intelligence (AI). Although many advancements have been made in this field, we are still a long way from replicating human levels of intelligence. At present most AI systems are general logic routines, where a known input results in a known output at a basic level. In the future it may be possible to produce AI Software which can ‘think’ and ‘act’ like human beings, resulting in robots which can do almost everything humans can do. Although not likely in the next 50 years, such robots could be used in all areas of life from tidying the house to caring for the elderly.
The last important area is swarm robotics, which refers to the control of multiple cooperating robots. A good example of what robot designers often try to emulate is the way in which termites build termite mounds. This can mean multiple robots doing different tasks, sometimes fitted with different equipment, cooperating either directly or indirectly to complete a task, with no knowledge of the overall result, i.e. the termite does not know that its actions will result in the mound. In the future multiple robots could be programmed to complete tasks such as searching a disaster area or cleaning up a oil spillage. It can be envisaged that these robots would be massed produced with interchangeable tools, which would mean a large group of robots could be deployed for one task and the reprogrammed to complete a new task.
- Robotics in the USA – 5-15 year perspective (2009) [PDF – 1.3MB]
- Futuristic Topics in Robotics (2008) [YouTube.com – 58.25 mins]