The following article discusses the potential growth of service robotics in the United States and several possible scenarios. It is adapted from the National Intelligence Council, Disruptive Civil Technologies Six Technologies with Potential Impacts on US Interests out to 2025: Conference Report (Apr. 2008) (full-text).
Robotics and its enabling technologies have already advanced to the stage where single-application robots and related systems (including autonomous vehicles) are being implemented in a wide range of civil and defense applications. Although a great deal of development is still required in terms of intelligence for robots, effective artificial intelligence (AI) and behavioral algorithms, many of the building blocks for disruptive robot systems are either already in place, or will be by 2025. The include hardware (e.g. sensors, actuators, and power systems) and software (e.g. robot platforms). Key disruptive applications of service robotics will include uses in domestic and defense settings. In addition, robotics technology has the potential to diffuse into other application areas, for example, human augmentation and autonomous vehicles.
Potential Impacts of Service Robotics Edit
Robots are designed to replace humans in a variety of applications, with each application having potentially far-reaching implications. Although truly intelligent robots are unlikely to emerge by 2025 (the key barrier being AI), robotics technology still has the potential to impact the four elements of U.S. national power:
Robotics is unlikely to transform geopolitics unless a massive advance in AI technologies occurs. However, the use of unmanned systems for terrorist activities could emerge by 2025 because the availability of simple robot platforms will increase significantly.
The global market for nonindustrial robotics could reach $15 billion by 2015. While it will be an important new industry, it is unlikely to significantly impede or aid the economic development of the United States.
Of all the four elements of national power, robotics is likely to have the greatest impact on the military element. Many robots and similar unmanned systems are already being implemented, although their capabilities are still limited. By 2025, unmanned systems with a much greater level of autonomy will have been implemented, and closely related/synergistic technologies (e.g. human augmentation systems) will extend the performance of soldiers significantly. The United States is likely to remain the world leader in this area.
Robotics could influence a number of key areas of life that affect social cohesion. The development and implementation of robots for elder-care applications, and the development of human augmentation technologies, mean that robots could be working alongside humans in looking after and rehabilitating people by 2025 (particularly in Japan and South Korea). However, over-reliance on automated devices such as domestic robots could increase obesity levels. A change in domestic and social responsibilities and a change in domestic employment requirements could affect lower income service-oriented workers.
The opportunity exists for the United States (and U.S. companies) to continue to be a world leader in robotics technologies, particularly for defense and domestic applications. The opportunity also exists for the United States and its allies to lead in the implementation of military robots and associated technologies. In addition, U.S. researchers must continue to press ahead with research relating to AI and human-robot interaction, to avoid falling behind Japan and South Korea. Chinese players will compete effectively with U.S., South Korean, European, and (most notably) Japanese companies in domestic and leisure robots by 2025 — China is also developing military robots.
Future Scenarios and Potential Impacts on the United States Edit
The key uncertainties associated with the future of robotics technologies can be demonstrated using two major axes:
- Technology advancement
- Global interest and funding
The key uncertainty along the technology advancement axis comprises the technical risks and knowledge gaps that will either move toward useful robots with commercial applications or toward an environment of many weak links with no discernable products. Artificial intelligence in robots is the key differentiator.
The global interest and funding axis will be influenced by technical progress. Governments and industry players will either be fully supportive and enthusiastic about robotics, or be cautious, perhaps removing funding and cutting R&D programs.
Using these axes, four scenarios — "Niche Products," "Loss of Patience," "Quasi-Autonomy," and the "Autonomous World" — can highlight how the future could play out through 2025. Each of these scenarios is described briefly and detail the opportunities and threats in the two scenarios that reflect the extremes of technological and commercial progress.
Scenario 1: Lost Patience Edit
Although major developments occur in several major enabling technologies, notably in terms of AI, through 2025, these developments occur too late to generate enough enthusiasm among key robotics stakeholders. Instead of commercialization of robots per se, advances in enabling technologies are often quickly transferred to other products and services, especially vehicles and consumer electronics. The lack of an integrated approach limits the overall impact of some significant advances in robotics technology, and low-cost manufacturing is unrealistic. Although some autonomous robots do see use in some applications (notably for defense applications), robot]s are still too expensive for many application areas. In general, the structure of the robotics industry remains fairly static.
Scenario 2: Quasi-Autonomy Edit
In "Quasi-Autonomy" we see only steady progress in key enabling technologies relating to robotics. In particular, the development of advanced computing technologies and cognitive-robotics R&D does not enable a major shift in intelligent robotics. Nevertheless, advances in other (some would say, less crucial) technologies occur, and simple robot systems start to become extremely popular in home applications. This commercial success drives interest in funding robotics R&D, and key players start to roll out affordable robots. International standards are developed, and some consolidation occurs in the nonindustrial robotics industry. [[Technology transfer[[ into other applications continues, and assisted vehicles become almost omnipresent.
Scenario 3: Niche Products Edit
In "Niche Products" predicted advances in robotics and its myriad enabling technologies never emerge. In particular, R&D relating to artificial intelligence and cognitive science does not move fast enough. Although some progress is made, any small breakthroughs are offset by the discovery of new problems and barriers to progress. Research relating to AI becomes nebulous. The lack of progress in robotics is not helped by progress in consumer electronics, connected homes, and home automation. People do not need robots to help them. Robotics continues to struggle to find enough viable applications to sustain a growing industry. Interest in funding robotics R&D lowers, and key players follow Sony's lead and abandon advanced robotics R&D. International standards are not developed. Some consolidation occurs in the nonindustrial robotics industry, but in general the structure of the industry remains static, with key players producing specific defense-, domestic-, transport- and leisure-related products. Low-cost manufacturing becomes the key to continued growth.
- Potential opportunities. The United States is well positioned to assume a leadership role in the development of robots for niche applications, especially military robots, and its players continue to lead in this area. While funding is cut for some high-level R&D activities, funding becomes concentrated around the development of key strategic technologies, such as UCVs and wearable robotics. This expertise leads to the United States having a clear advantage over many of its enemies in conflicts of many different types. By 2020, the number of US soldiers killed in combat has been reduced significantly by the adoption of unmanned systems.
- Potential threats. Although the United States continues to be a world leader in defense robotics, [[robotics] technology in general has not moved on enough for this strategic advantage to be critical. Although the United States is well positioned to defeat many types of threat via the use of unmanned systems (especially guerilla tactics), other countries also start to adopt unmanned systems to bolster their forces and catch up. Problems emerge in other application areas. iRobot faces such competition from both legitimate and counterfeit competitors in China that it sells its domestic-robotics business in 2015. The lack of support for advanced R&D means that key US centers of excellence and leaders of robotics R&D (Carnegie Mellon and MIT) have a significantly reduced profile.
Scenario 4: Autonomous World Edit
In "Autonomous World" several large advances occur in key enabling technologies relating to robotics. In particular, the development of advanced computing technologies and the successful completion of initial cognitive-robotics R&D enables a paradigm shift in intelligent robotics. Although advanced intelligent robots are still too expensive for most people to afford, robots are starting to be used for some key applications. In Japan, many robots are used to look after elderly people, and robots perform many difficult or repetitive jobs. In addition, these advances have resulted in a great deal of technology transfer into other applications. By 2020, even a simple leisure robot can help with some small tasks around the home (such as home security and tidying up). Crucially, robots have become a "must have" item for many people and a successful consumer-robotics industry emerges. In addition, other technologies benefit from this progress, autonomous vehicles become commonplace.
- Potential opportunities. With key developments and breakthroughs in robotics occurring at their universities and thus holding the core patents to the commercialization of some research, the United States and Japan remain in the driver's seat of the subsequent commercialization activity — with Europe and South Korea following close behind. The U.S. academic research community benefits greatly from follow-on research. The resulting technology transfer to the private sector results in considerable entrepreneurial activity that provides a new era of technology-led economic activity to boost the economy. U.S. companies continue to invest in robotics and associated technologies, and global standards for robot implementation emerge. The U.S. military meets and exceeds its targets (set in the mid 2000s) for the implementation of unmanned systems. Robots can replace human workers in a number of skilled manufacturing roles, boosting the competitiveness of U.S.-based manufacturing (also the case in Japan) in general.
- Potential threats. This scenario could have some economic and demographic impacts that policy makers are unprepared for. With robots having the ability to replace humans in skilled roles, unemployment becomes more of a problem as manual labor starts to become outdated. The increasing competitiveness of completely automated manufacturing in Japan and the United States triggered a slowdown in the growth of manufacturing in China, and the specter of economic collapse hangs over the region. In the United States, homes and cars have significantly increased in complexity due to all the automation, countering reductions in the power consumption of individual devices and also affecting recycling efforts. Extensive automation has not helped solve the problem of obesity; indeed many commentators argue it is a major contributor to obesity. In addition, the implementation of advanced robots for security applications (including micro robots and UAVs) leads to social tensions and disruption in some countries.
Signposts to Monitor Edit
Scenarios exist because of the uncertainty that is inherent with any view of the future. Determining which scenario best mirrors reality at any one time depends on careful assessment of reliable information and knowledge and monitoring various signposts that would indicate the direction and pace with which any field of uncertainty (in this case, relative to enabling the disruptive potential of a technology to U.S. interests) is advancing. Key variables, which, if positive, would indicate environments that are supportive toward service robotics technology development, include:
- The size and nature of robotics investments in the United States,
- Players involved in robotics R&D. Watch for either another key player to follow Sony's lead and abandons robotics altogether, or for a new player to follow Microsoft and invest heavily in robotics,
- Global levels of funding for robotics research, in particular, whether investment continues to rise or is cut,
- Toy becomes tool. The point when a toy robot has the ability to perform a useful task within the home (for example, retrieving an object for the user),
- The establishment of centers of excellence in robotics research outside the United States and models for research and commercialization,
- The completion of initial (international) research programs for the development of cognitive robots,
- The development of noninvasive brain-machine interfaces,
- The launch of Chinese designed and built robots for domestic, service-sector, and defense applications,
- Development of unmanned vehicles with sliding autonomy for both civil and defense applications, and
- The development and implementation of national and international standards for service, domestic, and military robots.