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Robotics evangelist: 'Personal robots' should be invisible beings

Forget that humanoid robot paradigm – it's all about services, not servants

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Solid Personal robots are fast approaching reality, says one robotics evangelist – but not as the humanoid servants so often portrayed in futuristic fantasies.

"Robots are the new black," said Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics, speaking at the O'Reilly Solid conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

"That sounds ironic," Keay said. "After all, we know that nothing is ever really the 'new black' except for black. Everything else is a fad. It's marketing."

But, she said, there's no doubt that robotics – and hardware in general – is the new hotness. "We've all heard that hardware is the new software," referring to the land rush of interest in a wide range of new hardware products, using as an example the acquisition of warehouse shelf–moving robots company Kiva Systems by Amazon for a cool $775m in March 2012.

She also noted the rise in venture accelerators for hardware and robotics – a sure sign that the moneymen see a wave coming and are paddling out fast to try to catch it and ride it into the big-buck future.

Another indication of the rise of moneyed interest in robotics was the November 2013 launch of Robo-Stox, the first index of publicly traded robotics stocks. The companies in the Robo-Stox index, she said, have market values of between $200m and $125bn, and a median value of between $2bn and $3bn.

"It sounds impressive," she said, "but that's misleading, because many of these are companies like [Swiss automation and power firm] ABB and Foxconn, like Bosch and Boeing, that do a lot more than what we consider to be robotics."

Robotics, Keay said, remains a nascent field, still finding its feet outside the world of industrial installations, which currently have a market value of $30bn, a market that she described as "comparatively saturated."

The real growth area, she argued, is what she called "professional service robots" such as surgical, health, agricultural, and logistics robots, which have the dual advantages of high unit cost and a high growth rate.

But there's another giant market that's yet to be tapped: personal robots, which she described as including appliances, toys, educational devices, and the like, with unit costs typically around $200 – orders of magnitude below that of professional service robots.

"To overtake the projected market value of service robotics," she said, "personal robotics has to sell billions of units."

Personal robotics may have a long way to go, but it's only at the very beginning of its market penetration. And there's reason to believe that opportunities abound. One star player, for example – iRobot's floor-vacuum Roomba – has already sold over 10 million units, making it the largest-selling robot in the world.

But 10 million is a long way from the billions of personal robots that Keay says have to be sold before personal robotics can take its place among industrial and professional service robots in the revenue-raking ranks. And she thinks she knows why it still has such a long way to go.

"For too long, robotics has been a technology without a cause, over-promising and under-delivering," she said. "Perhaps we've been building robots, not services."

South Korea, she said, has announced a goal of equipping every home with a humanoid robot by 2020. From her point of view, this is wrongheaded – robots should be invisible providers of services, not recognizable servants or companions.

"By the year 2020," she said, "your household robot will be your house. Not the humanoid robot from science fiction; nor, for that matter, from South Korea."

Today, she said, "We're surrounded by robots we don't see," referring to the increasingly microprocessor-controlled world in which we live, "while we're still waiting for the robots we imagine."

The companies that provide services using robotic techniques will be the winners, not the companies that offer robots that provide services. ®

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