I've seen enough science fiction movies to know that autonomy and robots don't mix. The next step beyond autonomy is these things developing a sense of self. Once that happens, we'll be living the plotline of “The Planet of the Apes, ” only with robots becoming our masters instead of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall (I'm an old-school Apes man).
Yet autonomy is just what manufacturers in the service and combat robot markets are shooting for. An article in last Friday's Wall Street Journal, titled “Robots: America's Newest Soldiers, ” said that robotic vehicles in the battlefield will have to work more autonomously, without someone sitting at a control panel or manipulating a joystick. No Problem. The CEO of Northrop Grumman says that's just a computing power and systems engineering issue, not of technology fundamentals.
So he believes he's mastered the fundamentals. Didn't Victor Frankenstein believe the same thing while he was stitching together disparate pieces and parts?
Even the makers of service robots—like those robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers you might have read about in Popular Mechanics—see autonomy as the ultimate means to market acceptance. Prettiness will have to come before that (as Frankenstein failed to learn), but that's happening now, according to EUROP, an organization that describes itself as the “European Robotics Technology Platform, ” and an “industry-driven framework for the main stakeholders in robotics to identify common initiatives and strengthen Europe's competitiveness in robotic R&D and global markets. ”
In its report on the recent European Robotics Forum in VÃ¤sterÃ¥s, Sweden, EUROP says there's a potentially vast market out there for service roboticists to address. The aging population is one. There's already a “Care-O-bot, ” specifically developed for elderly care, and already able to fetch, carry and do some simple household chores. Cost is the only obstacle these kinds of robots will have a tough time rolling over, but until they do, EUROP says there are countless niches to exploit. Two are particularly ripe: industrial assembly and distribution.
So as those applications ripen, will we see robots in the plant or distribution center gradually become self-aware, realize what they're doing and join the millennial generation of humans in steering clear of these jobs? If they were really smart and self-aware, they'd perfect the art of selling themselves—as one component in a system of interdependent components. That seems to be a talent many of technology's human creators have yet to master.
According to George F. Brown, Jr., co-founder of Blue Canyon Partners, a business consulting firm, he's heard from clients who've had trouble understanding how their products synched up with other components as a system in their customers' industries. In a recent executive survey his firm conducted, one particular respondent summarized the problem many businesses have:
“We thought our responsibilities were tied to our products,” this person said. “This too was off the mark. More than half of the service calls we got were associated with something that was at best peripheral to our products, some not in any way linked except in the minds of our customers. But we had to learn the larger systems in which our products were operating, and be able to steer our customers toward a solution to whatever problems they had. It just wouldn't work to say that the issue wasn't our issue – we tried that a couple of times and learned quickly never to do so again.”
That's the kind of self awareness technology providers in material handling and logistics are busy mastering so they'll survive our new economy. A system really is more than the sum of its fundamentals. I just hope their counterparts making combat robotics for the defense industry develop the same kind of system awareness and avoid making Frankenstein's mistake.