3 factors that will see robotics play a role in the most unlikely places


Robotics are on the rise, and with Google’s recent robotics acquisitions, some techies are hoping that the long-promised era of helpful robots may one day soon be upon us.

Tijn van der Vant is co-founder of Robocup at home — a branch of the same Robocup foundation that brings us the annual robot soccer competition. In addition, he is also a professor at the University of Groningen, and CEO of Assistobot — a robotics company designed to help monitor and care for the elderly in home and medical settings.

In the last five years, Van der Vant has seen an increasing number of complex and sophisticated robotics systems developed in unexpected countries such as Brazil or the Philippines, and the trend continues to rise. In a recent interview he explored three factors contributing to the proliferation of robotics in seemingly unlikely places.

The first and arguably most important factor in the increased access to robotics methods and knowledge is the movement towards a large, open-source community. “We can now download the work of thousands or even tens of thousands of scientists” says Van der Vant. “…Our speciality is in machine learning, but the rest we can download and stay focused on our business case.”

So robotics teams in Brazil or Iran might gain access to the construction methods and specific algorithms for, say, machine vision, and simply plug them into their project. This not only lets researchers and citizen scientists learn the best of the best knowledge from other researchers, it allows them to focus on innovation and “standing on the shoulders of giants” — rather than “re-inventing the wheel”.

Second, cutting-edge researchers inside of universities are constantly getting their work published in order to attain references from other articles and so contribute to the field. Recognition and contribution in this way is the “coinage of the realm” – so to speak — in academia, and much of this knowledge is available to anyone with access to those published journals. “Whatever they develop in laboratories is now available not in 10 or 15 years – like was a few decades ago – but in a year or so,” Van der Vant continues, “I believe that even large companies will use a mix of proprietary innovations and open source – simply because it is too expensive even for big organizations to make all of the discoveries and progress in-house.”

Third is the smart-phone and other mass-market consumer technologies. Just half a decade ago, a team like Van der Vant’s might have needed to spend €20 000 on a 3-D sensor – and now they (and any other robotics team) have access to Microsoft’s Kinect – which is more capable, smaller, and a tiny fraction of the cost. Mobile phones might even be a more powerful example of consumer tech’s impact: “With modern mobile phone technology, there is a lot of computational power for very little energy – maybe 5 / 10 Watt processors… other computers might take 10, 20, 30 times more power.”

With massive companies like Samsung and Apple fighting hard (will boat loads of capital) to have better batteries and better sensors, the researchers now get the fruit of that labour: great parts and components. Big companies can drop the research dollars – and hackers can find their own use for things.

Van der Vant sees these trends as being a crucial in the overall development of robotics – as it permits more knowledge to be shared, pooled, and built upon. Could countries in emerging markets have just as good a shot at breakthrough robotics discoveries? With open source knowledge, global robotics competitions, and access to cheaper and more powerful systems — everyone’s got a better shot.

Image: CJ Isherwood (via Flickr)



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