The movies have taught us a lot about what robots can do: drive careening fire engines through the streets of Los Angeles, escape unscathed from burning oil tanker trucks, serve as backup medical officers on starships, the usual. Right?
Well, not yet at least.
The truth is, while robots are evolving quickly, and are already used in domains as diverse as manufacturing and healthcare, they are still mostly relegated to performing tasks that are routine and repetitive, and to performing those tasks in environments like factories or warehouses where obstacles and other surprises are rare.
Happily, things are beginning to change. A mix of public and private investment – supported in part by the National Robotics Initiative launched by President Obama in 2011 – is speeding the development of machine learning algorithms and increasingly advanced hardware. That in turn is facilitating the development of robots able to operate creatively in human-designed spaces, opening a growing spectrum of possible applications.
In what promises to be one of the more dramatic demonstrations of that potential, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will in June host the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in Pomona, CA. At this event, 25 teams will compete for $3 million in prizes as they show off their robots’ abilities to provide humanitarian assistance after a natural or manmade disaster such as an earthquake or nuclear power plant accident. The robots, which will vary in design, will have to demonstrate that they can perform tasks like driving a vehicle to a disaster zone and disembarking without assistance, navigating around and over rubble, climbing stairs, cutting holes in walls, and turning valves on and off.
If robots have a future helping in disasters, what else might they do with and for people in the years and decades ahead? In conjunction with its Robotics Challenge, DARPA recently launched Robots4Us—a contest that asks high school students to produce 2- to 3-minute videos envisioning the kind of robot-assisted future they’d like to see. Five winners will get free trips to California in June to attend the two-day Robotics Challenge Finals and participate in a panel with roboticists and futurists to discuss the kind of future they would – and would not – like to see with robots.
If you are a U.S. high school student, check out the Robots4Us website, fire up a video cam, and get your entry in by April 1. Yours will be the first generation to live and work closely with robots. Have a say in what kind of a world you want that to be!
Richard Voyles is Assistant Director for Robotics and Cyber-Physical Systems at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.