For years we’ve heard the prediction that “the robots are coming.” Now, they’ve actually arrived. They permeate our homes as toys like Lego MindStorms and the Furby. Robotics graduate programs are well established at many universities, with undergraduate programs starting to appear. Reconnaissance bots roam with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’ve started to see home cleaning robots in stores and advertised on TV.
I’ve staked my own financial security on the success of some of these emerging robot products. The company I cofounded, iRobot, formerly housed above a Somerville, MA, strip mall, recently moved to offices many times as large, thanks in part to sales of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and PackBot military robot. For a while during the dot-com boom, I was even helping manage a venture capital firm that funds robotic startups. Like all VC firms, it’s seen some of its investments disappear, while some are still growing.
I am convinced robots today are where computers were in 1978. That’s about the year that computers started to appear around us in the way that robots are cropping up today. Of course, it was another 15 years before computers truly became pervasive in our lives. I think that 15 years from now, robots will be everywhere, as e-mail and the Web are now.
Continued improvement in robotic navigation is one key to this broad future. The lawn-mowing robots, cleaning robots, and military reconnaissance robots that are on the market today do their specialized tasks almost as a side effect of their primary programming: navigation. Robotic versions of large farming equipment, golf carts, and specially built supply mules for the military-all under development-are likewise primarily navigation machines. No doubt many other navigation-based robots will become common in the next few years. From what I see at university labs, we already have in hand many of the scientific advances needed to fuel a multibillion-dollar market for navigating robots. Development at iRobot and at other companies is bringing down costs.