Friday, August 17, 2012

The cost-function roadmap of intelligent machines

The idea of a Universal robot has been around for at least 10,000  years where legend has it that a Chinese inventor created the worlds first walking talking humanoid.

Leonardo di Vinci even got into the act imagining and prototyping a robotic soldier. The dream of a servant with the intelligence of a human being, but where the owner has no moral obligation to the creature, is appealing.  Being born and raised in the US,  I was not raised with servants around the house, picking up clothes after me, preparing my meals and so on. If I had the means to hire such a servant, I would not feel comfortable.

I would accept a robotic servant, if it could do the things I needed and not get in the way.
To build such a servant there is a key conundrum that must be addressed. It is not technical. It is a business problem. I call this conundrum the Cost-Function roadmap.

What is the idea behind this road map? I can say with 90% certainty that we could build a universal robot for a billion dollars or so.  A billion dollars is a government scale project  or at least that of a company the size of a small government.  

It is obvious that if we did have such a robot, we could improve  productivity in America dramatically. The impact on productivity in the workspace and at home would be measured not in the billions of dollars but in the trillions of dollars in the US alone.

It is well worth doing. People feel it in the bones, but so far investors and the government are only willing to throw some loose change in the direction of small project of this sort. No one is ready for the moon shot.

That is the reality that we live in today. To harmonize this dream with the needs of the stake holders (i.e. investors and the eventual end users) we need to develop a road map. This road map would establish a string of products that would be organized as a ladder of capability. At each rung of the ladder, the product must have a value that exceeds it cost to the consumer.  So far,  with a nod  to iRobot (who's director of communication Mathew Lloyd recently gave me a left handed compliment about  my newest work... but hey, I have a thick skin).... I think we have not reached even rung one of that ladder in the consumer space.

What? ! What about the millions of robotic vacuum cleaners and RoboSapiens that have been sold?!  In a previous post, I talked about "crossing the chasm" or moving from early adopters of technology to the early majority... that is building a product that a practical mom or dad would buy, not just something of interest to gadget freaks or robot lovers. Or divorced dads wanting to buy the next cool toy for their kid that they see every other week.

No, I am talking about devices that outcompete the competitors for the big markets.  Consumer robotics is not there yet.

The hardest nut to crack in robotics is not the technology itself. It is to identify and build that ladder of technology rung by rung until we reach the Universal Robot. Obama is not going to fund a billion dollar project to get there.... at least not in the consumer space.

My hope is that companies like RethinkRobotics which is focusing on the manufacturing space, may be developing some super secret technology that will spill over into the consumer space.

I also think that as the era of the PC is ending we may start to ascend the ladder.   Who wants to sit in front of a computer ? The computer is used at home primarily for social purposes not work. It no longer needs to be a high tech imitation of a typewriter.  The computer is an aberrant and unnatural form for social communication. New technology will replace it.  The telephone has already morphed into an instrument of social media, the smart phone. Obviously the TV is next. After that the kitchen (the soul of any home) will transform into a social center. And the computer will fad away.

As the era of the PC ends, I predict that  we will finally begin to climb the ladder to the universal robot.