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Alan Winfield on “What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream?”

May 15, 2013

Well it depends on what you mean by mainstream. For a number of  major industry sectors robotics is already mainstream. In assembly-line automation, for instance; or undersea oil well maintenance and inspection. You could argue that robotics is well established as the technology of choice for planetary exploration. And in human culture too, robots are already decidedly mainstream. Make believe robots are everywhere, from toys and children’s cartoons, to TV ads and big budget Hollywood movies. Robots are so rooted in our cultural landscape that public attitudes are, I believe, informed – or rather misinformed – primarily by fictional rather than real-world robots.

But I understand the sentiment behind the question. In robotics we have a shared sense of a technology that has yet to reach its true potential; of a dream unfulfilled.

The question asks what is the single biggest obstacle. In my view some of the biggest  immediate obstacles are not technical but human. Let me explain with an example. We already have some very capable tele-operated robots for disaster response. They are rugged, reliable and some are well field-tested. Yet why it is that robots like these are not standard equipment with fire brigades? I see no technical reason that fire tenders shouldn’t have, as standard, a compartment with a tele-operated robot – charged and ready for use when it’s needed. There are, in my view, no real technical obstacles. The problem I think is that such robots need to become accepted by fire departments and the fire fighters themselves, with all that this entails for training, in-use experience and revised operational procedures.

In the longer term we need to ask what it would mean for robotics to go mainstream. Would it mean everyone having a personal robot, in the same we all now have personal computing devices? Or, when all cars are driverless perhaps? Or, when everyone whose lives would be improved with a robot assistant, could reasonably expect to be able to afford one? Some versions of mainstream are maybe not a good idea: I’m not sure I want to contemplate a world in there are as many personal mobile robots, as there are mobile phones now (~4.5 billion). Would this create robot smog, as Illah Nourbakhsh calls it in his new book Robot Futures?

Right now I don’t have a clear idea of what it would mean for robots to go mainstream, but one thing’s for sure: we should be thinking about what kind of sustainable, humanity benefitting and life enhancing mainstream robot futures we really want.

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Alan Winfield is Professor in robotics at UWE Bristol. He communicates about science on his personal blog... read more

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