Think the robot apocalypse might be near? Think again. Although Google made headlines for snapping up eight robotics companies in the second half of 2013, and again for dropping a reported $400 million on artificial-intelligence startup DeepMind last week, one entrepreneur with a deep background in robotics says we're a long way from being subjugated by intelligent machines.
"Generally it's best to keep our expectations about such technology fairly conservative," says Tandy Trower, the founder and chief executive of Seattle-based Hoaloha Robotics, whose mission is to create robot companions for the elderly.
And Trower knows from robots. Before striking out on his own in 2009, he founded Microsoft's robotics group under the watchful eye of Bill Gates. But when Steve Ballmer, who replaced Gates as CEO, said he wasn't interested in pursuing health-care applications, Trower felt he couldn't turn his back on the possibility of improving people's lives.
"Our mission is to deliver a companion robot that will assist this growing population of people who face the challenges of aging, disability and disease," Trower says. "We don't see ourselves in the role of replacing human care at all, but rather we hope to bridge the gap between the growing number of people who need support and the shrinking number of people who can provide it."
But the Hoaloha robot, he estimates, won't hit the market for at least another two years. In the meantime, components will continue to get cheaper, which will make it easier to hit the price range of $5,000 to $10,000 that he figures would put his robot within reach for consumers. "But I wouldn't expect any dramatic leaps in terms of robots in the home or artificial intelligence," Trower says. "It will be more of a progression in terms of the things we're already using."
In essence, that means algorithms designed to achieve specific tasks -- not holistic, human-like thinking and imagining. Consider a calculator, Trower says. Even a basic desktop calculator can do calculations faster and more accurately than most people. But, unlike a human being, it has no perception of what it's doing. The same holds true for IBM's Jeopardy-winning Watson.
The two areas in which the robotics industry has done a poor job, says Trower, are in providing real benefits to consumers at a feasible price and in providing an appealing way for users to interact with the technology. He mentions the trumpet-playing robot that Toyota introduced several years ago. Although the technical achievement was impressive, it lacked a user interface. How does it translate to changing regular people's lives? he asked himself.
Despite his skepticism, Trower himself is trying to bring robots to the masses. In his conception, Hoaloha's robot will be capable of moving on its own, understanding its environment -- at least more than a Roomba does -- and interacting with its owner on a level far beyond Siri's.
But with the promise of a friendly robot sidekick comes the need to avoid making a real-world Clippy the paperclip, Microsoft Word's erstwhile office assistant that drove users crazy and which Time named one of the 50 worst inventions. "If you don't do it right, it can be tremendously annoying," Trower admits.
For all of these reasons, people fearing a robot takeover can rest a little easier, though techno-utopians dreaming of the Singularity may be disappointed.
"The idea that we're on the cusp of the age where we can either merge with machines or accept them as our peers -- I don't see that happening in the short term," Trower says. "We still have a long way to go."