Democratization of Robotics Featured Pattern: P1162 January 2018

Author: David Strachan-Olson (Send us feedback.)

New technologies and decreasing costs are democratizing access to robots, which could have significant social impacts.

Abstracts in this Pattern:

Companies continue to deploy more robots to perform manufacturing and service tasks every year. However, new technologies and decreasing costs are making robots more accessible to the public. Carnegie Mellon University's (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) Robotics Institute (www.ri.cmu.edu) recently created interactive design software that enables both nonexperts and experts to create robot designs quickly and easily. The software features a library of off-the-shelf components and a simple drag-and-drop interface. For nonstandard parts, the software creates structures that users can 3D print. The software also features a simulation environment in which creators can quickly test and adjust their robot designs before they fabricate their robots. The team hopes that such software will one day enable essentially anyone to design custom robots. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech; Atlanta, Georgia) recently opened the Robotarium (www.robotarium.gatech.edu)—a 725-square-foot facility that houses close to 100 swarm robots that essentially anyone can access. Researchers and members of the public from anywhere in the world can write and upload programs to the Robotarium, and the facility's robots will carry out the programs' commands. The users receive the results and video footage of their tests. For many robotic researchers, developing and maintaining a multirobot lab is too expensive and time consuming. Magnus Egerstedt, executive director of the Georgia Tech Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines (www.robotics.gatech.edu), hopes the Robotarium will "do for robotics what MOOCs (massive open online courses) have done for education."

As robots become more involved in society, people will develop relationships with them. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, Massachusetts) are studying interactions between humans and robots and the relationships that humans form with robots. The team has discovered that children readily ascribe to robots the physical and mental attributes of living creatures. Such attributes include seeing, moving, thinking, feeling physical stimuli, experiencing emotions, and desiring companionship. Although robots do not currently find extensive use outside factories, new products such as robotic vacuum cleaners, smart speakers with speaking virtual assistants, and service robots are becoming increasingly common. Many questions remain unanswered, and the MIT research team will continue to evaluate the relationships that humans form with robots and other intelligent systems.