There aren't a lot of benefits to being a journalist. The pay isn't great, there's the constant stress of deadlines and people are always indirectly blaming you, "the media," for sensationalism, blowing things out of proportion or, my favourite, reporting something "out of context," the default excuse of people caught saying something they shouldn't have. There are a few bright sides, though. We tend to get a lot of free coffee and sandwiches and every now and then we get to interview one of our childhood heroes (kung fu action star Jackie Chan comes to mind). And on the rarest of occasions we see or experience something that completely blows our mind and makes up for all the bad coffee.
People are willing to have sex with inflatable dolls, so initially anything that moves will be an improvement. European Robotics Network chairman Henrik Christensen
That's what happened to me in January 2008, while I was covering the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. After wading through the crushing crowds and the sensory overload that is the convention floor, I staggered out to the parking lot for my appointment with the "Boss," the robot vehicle built in Pittsburgh by Carnegie Mellon University engineers. Just two months earlier the souped-up General Motors SUV had won the DARPA Urban Challenge, in which fully automated vehicles raced around a ninety-six-kilometre track in a simulated city environment. After explaining how the vehicle worked-it used a combination of radar, laser sensors, cameras and GPS positioning-project manager Chris Urmson took me for a ride around the obstacle course set up in the parking lot.
With me in the passenger seat and Urmson in the back, the Boss lurched to life and began to drive the oval-shaped course, deftly veering around the garbage can and pylon obstacles. I sat there open-mouthed, staring in awe at the empty driver's seat and the steering wheel as it eerily turned itself left, then right, then left again. I had a flashback to Knight Rider, the eighties show I watched as a kid in which David Hasselhoff drove an intelligent car named KITT. (The tricked-out Trans Am could drive itself, have conversations with people and even, in one outrageously silly episode, help Hasselhoff gamble by somehow magically controlling his dice.) Here was KITT in reality. My mind reeled at what was happening, and what it meant. Sure, I'd seen robots on TV and even a few simple ones working in person, yet here one was chauffeuring me around.
After a few laps around the course, the Boss unexpectedly veered left, jerking me out of my reverie. The car plowed into some garbage cans set up on the side of the obstacle course, then came to an abrupt stop. "That's never happened before!" Urmson exclaimed from the back seat. Having seen too many movies, I immediately started thinking the machine was turning on us, as in I, Robot or The Matrix. A few tense seconds passed as I tried to remember how Sarah Connor had defeated Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, but then the Boss came back to life. The car calmly backed up and resumed its course. The test drive ended a few minutes later and Urmson set to figuring out what had happened. It turned out the Boss's cameras weren't able to see the lane markings on that particular patch of the course, hence the swerve. There was no harm or damage, but still, I thought, robot cars evidently have some way to go before they can be trusted on the streets.
The process will indeed take some time as robotic features are added one at a time, Urmson said. Some GM vehicles already incorporate technology used in the Boss, such as lane and blind-spot detectors that alert drivers when they are swerving. Next up will be a form of robotic cruise control where the car can detect how fast or slow the vehicles in front of it are going, then adjust its own speed accordingly. Eventually, self-driving cars will be allowed on highways, since traffic there is more straightforward than on city streets, and drivers will be freed up to do other things on long-distance journeys. "It's going to be phased in gradually but we expect a fully autonomous, self-driving car to be on the road in the next decade," Urmson said. "That means during a long road trip, I can read, watch a movie or even sleep." A GM executive listening in on our conversation also suggested that once the bugs are worked out, robot drivers will be safer than humans because they have no emotions. "There will be no more road rage, because it's logical. It's like Mr. Spock."
The IBM of Robots?
The reality of the impending revolution hit me that day in Las Vegas. Robots are no longer science fiction; they aren't just automated arms in car factories or cutesy toy dogs any more. They are here, they work (mostly) and they will soon be everywhere. Self-driving cars will be only one small phase of the coming wave. The global robotics market, made up mostly of those automated arms, was pegged at $17.3 billion in 2008 and is expected to grow massively over the next decade as new uses take off-up to $100 billion by one estimate. There are now an estimated fifty-five million robots in homes around the world in the form of toys, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and security monitors, and some people believe it won't be long before every household has one. Indeed, the government of South Korea has mandated such a plan to be in effect by 2020. Robots will soon feed us, clothe us, wash us, keep us company and fetch us beer from the fridge. Eventually, we'll even have robots to control those robots. Many look at the industry's ramping growth and compare it to the early personal computer market of the seventies. "We may be on the verge of a new era, when the PC will get up off the desktop and allow us to see, hear, touch and manipulate objects in places where we are not physically present," says Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
But when will this revolution happen, and who will lead it? Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's robotics department, believes the new era will be ushered in by a big carmaker, namely Toyota. In an industry where a single leading company has yet to emerge the way IBM did with early computers or Microsoft with software, the Japanese carmaker has a number of advantages over other robotics manufacturers, Trower says. Toyota has decades of experience in robotics, since it was one of the first to make wide-scale use of automated production lines. The company has also produced some amazing examples of advanced robotics, such as robots that can play the trumpet and violin. Toyota also understands the consumer market, has deep pockets for the heavy research and development needed and a distribution network to make mass adoption a reality.
Toyota has taken a smarter approach than most American companies, which have been too fixated on the military market, Trower says. The biggest market for robotics lies in health-care and personal assistance, which is where the car company is looking. "Rather than focusing on the military applications, they're focused on the social aspect of how robots will assist us in the future. They are a very important company to watch," he says. "Toyota could be the IBM of robots."
I don't agree, simply because history argues the contrary. Health care and elderly assistance may indeed prove to be the biggest home market for robotics makers, but it certainly won't be the first large one. If our story so far has taught us anything, it's that the early adoption of this kind of technology is almost always spurred by two of our most elemental human behaviours: sex and violence. Toyota has few, if any, links to the industries serving those two markets. Second, while a Japanese company may lead the first wave of mass adoption, it is not likely to be a big one like Toyota. Again, history has shown that big companies rarely lead the spread of new technologies, simply because their very success is tied to existing or "old" technologies. Investing too much in new advances risks the possibility of spreading a company thin or cannibalizing an existing business, which is exactly what has happened to Trower's own employer, Microsoft, in recent years. Because the software giant made its fortune supplying the operating system on which desktop computers run, it was slow to address the rise of the Internet, where it doesn't really matter which operating system you're running. Microsoft squandered its position of dominance on the computer to Google, a company built from the ground up on the Internet. As such, Google now dominates the main form of revenue generation on the internet- search-related advertising-the way that Microsoft dominates computer operating systems. The only difference is that one business represents the future while the other is shrinking in importance.
The same phenomenon is likely to happen in robotics. While a company like Toyota maintains a significant advantage in terms of resources and experience over the thousands of tiny robotics start-ups around the world, its main business is still selling cars. Toyota's shareholders may think robotics is quaint and interesting, but their main concern will always be selling cars. They are likely to resist any big incursions into businesses that have little to do with core competency. Small robot companies don't have such an existing business to protect and are much more likely to seek out and address opportunities wherever they present themselves. One such company, iRobot, is already emerging, and for my money it is far more likely to be the Microsoft or IBM of robots.
Tomorrow: Robots That Suck
Based in Bedford, Massachusetts, a short drive north from Boston through leafy New England, iRobot's headquarters is a single building in an industrial park overlooking the freeway. It's a much smaller base than what you would expect for what is quickly becoming one of the world's most important companies.
From Sex, Bombs and Burgers by Peter Nowak. Copyright Peter Nowak, 2010. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada)