American author, inventor, Google’s director of engineering and forward-looking prognosticator Ray Kurzweil once wrote, "We won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)."
If he's correct, then the revolution in robotics that's just beginning to pick up steam is likely to transform the world as we know it in very short order.
In industries from manufacturing to healthcare and more, robots are performing tasks that seem routine now but were the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago. Whether it's pharmaceutical robots dispensing medicine in hospitals, therapeutic robots providing emotional support to children or packaging robots intelligently assembling orders from massive inventories, the revolution has begun.
But how did we get here, and what does this mean for industries of the future?
In many ways, you can be forgiven if you hadn't realized that robotics are on the precipice of a paradigm shift. After all, while the external styling has picked up an air of iPod polish, the robots of 2016 look remarkably similar to the robots of 1996, or even '86. Today's 30-year-olds grew up with toy robots that waddled around much like the newest models do at modern industry trade shows, and faceless robotic arms have been features of manufacturing plants for just as long.
So what's different now? The most important breakthroughs are happening beneath the surface, where the very idea of intelligence is being explored through A.I. software.
To understand how, you first need to understand "exponential growth." You're probably most familiar with the concept through Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors able to be squeezed into a computer processing chip would double every two years, roughly doubling our maximum computing power at the same time. When charted on a graph, that pattern yields the familiar "hockey stick graph," where the gradual slope of a data line quickly rises to vertical.
Exponential Growth of Computing - Source Kurzweil.net
If you've lived your entire life on the gradual slope, it can be difficult to imagine that the vertical leap is just ahead. And yet, many scientists say that's exactly the case for artificial intelligence.
Experts predict that actual supercomputers will grow 30 times more powerful in just the next four years. By 2030, our most powerful processors could be thousands of times more powerful than even that. While "brain power" is about more than simple processing speed, it remains true that the human brain is still the most powerful processor we know of. But once the exponential curve kicks in, computers may not be far behind.
Our processing power isn't the only thing that's climbing the hockey stick--the amount of data worldwide is growing just as quickly. Indeed, the total quantity of digital data is expected to reach 44 zettabytes by 2020. That's 10 followed by 21 zeroes, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.
This matters for robotics because one of the biggest challenges of artificial intelligence is figuring out how to "teach" intelligence to a machine. A single scientist, or even thousands of scientists, can only collect so much data to feed into A.I. software. But when every aspect of human life is recorded and stored in the digital realm, the classroom becomes worldwide. In this case, the sheer amount of data becomes its own lesson about humanity.
In order to make use of that data and enable the processing speeds necessary for true A.I., connection speeds must improve. Fortunately, they're doing just that, and experts predict that total annual data flow around the world will exceed two zettabytes by 2019.
Beyond the advances in A.I. that are enabling the future of robotics, a confluence of three key events is predicted to drive their explosive development in the near future.
The first key event is the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), in which "things" like the smartphones we use every day, are responsible for an increasing share of the data generated by daily life. In the latest generation of tech, even household appliances are equipped with Wi-Fi connections and electronic sensors, and robots are similarly set to begin participating in our digital world.
Leaps in Cloud Robotics. Source: Bloomberg
Advances in the biological sciences will also make an impact, as breakthroughs like the easy sequencing of genomes help us better understand life itself, and so increase our ability to mimic it through robotics.
Finally, 3D printing has upended the old order of manufacturing. By shrinking the timespan of the "planning to production" cycle, 3D printing allows developers to test robotic components on the fly. Being able to generate prototypes in hours - instead of days, weeks or months -- will further accelerate the development process.
Tomorrows World Graphic
Illustrations by Greygouar; Design by Wes Fernandes/Nature; Sources: 1. top500; 2. IDC Digital Universe Study, 2012; 3. Cisco Visual Network Index (VNI), 2015; 4. Cisco VNI Global IP Traffic Forecast, 2014–2019; 5. NCBI; 6. EPSRC; Direct Manufacturing Research Center; Roland Berger; 7. International federation of robotics, Japan Robot Association; Japan Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry; euRobotics; BCG
All of the above are big reasons why the robotics market has nearly tripled in size in the last 10 years, and is expected to double again and reach nearly $70 billion by 2025.
When predicting the near future of robotics, experts are bullish. Gill Pratt, heading up the Toyota Research Institute, says we may be on the cusp of a "robot Cambrian explosion." That period in the Cambrian epoch is notable as the point when life flooded across Earth's surface in an explosion of species diversification.
Daniela Rus, Head of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, expects a future world where "robots are as common as cars and phones, a world where everybody can have a robot and robots are pervasively integrated in the fabric of life."
Meanwhile, Fei-Fei Li of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Pedro Domingas of the University of Washington both anticipate the rise of robot assistants, with robot "servants" in the home and robot lab assistants working side by side with human researchers.
The specifics may be in doubt, but the conclusion is not. When it comes to robotics, the future is a world full of robots.