The same robotic technologies that enable laboratory droids to bake cookies and construct small buildings have the potential to dramatically automate manufacturing processes in the next decade.
Robots are already changing lives and accelerating productivity much as computing did in the last few decades, according to MIT professor and researcher, Daniela Rus. The next wave of exponential growth and advancements in robotic fabrication also will have a huge impact on the digital economy. “We will soon get to an age where it is as easy to have your own robots as it is to print on paper today,” she said at an October IDE seminar. Rus, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as well as Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), discussed and demonstrated the results of her most recent work.
Based on a 2014 McKinsey report advanced robotics, the Internet of Things and autonomous cars are among the top 12 disruptive technologies with a total potential economic impact between $14 trillion and $33 trillion a year in 2025. (See infographics here). Advanced robotics alone could generate from $1.7 to $4.5 trillion, according to McKinsey. The estimates are "based on an in-depth analysis of key potential applications and the value they could create in a number of ways, including the consumer surplus that arises from better products, lower prices, a cleaner environment, and better health."
Rus said despite huge progress, the high cost of robotic design and production, as well as limitations in communications and physical dexterity still have to be overcome before bots can reach their full economic potential. Toward that end, her group is building and deploying easily designed robots that can perform complex, multi-step tasks. They can also interact with humans and follow instructions with new levels of precision and accuracy. For example, a team of bots in the lab have built a log cabin by identifying parts and language sequences, then dividing the tasks among themselves. Once at work, the robots analyze instructions and adjust their processes to accommodate their droid co-workers. They communicate with each other and can ask their human partners for specific help if they get stuck with a task as well.
In another example, an Iron Chef bot baked cookies by “reading” a series directions, mixing the ingredients and popping the pan into the oven. Executing such seemingly simple tasks required more than a year’s work in computational and lab development at MIT and cost about $500,000 to produce. The group is also testing a series of simple, self-assembling "origami" style robots. The results of all of these efforts clearly “stretch the boundaries of what robots can do” now and indicate how much more they can achieve in the very near-term, Rus said—especially when commercial developers stake their claim.
“The state of robot production today is similar to where programming was before the invention of compilers,” she said. And with the rapid pace of advancements, the proliferation of low-cost, high function robots is just a blink away.