While it may be entertaining to imagine the robots of the near future to be similar to the robots of science fiction and popular entertainment, the reality is likely to be far different. Robots, unlike living organisms, exist in an artificial environment and can be specialized for tasks that would be both impractical and often impossible for any other mechanism, biological or otherwise.
Robots are set to take advantage of some of mankind’s most impressive achievements in electronics, telecommunications, microprocessors, energy production, avionics, and materials science. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA have had a robotic vehicle operating almost continuously on Mars for over six years. There are few limits to what they and others might accomplish here on Earth in the next few decades.
Key to many of the medical industry’s most important future achievements is the concept of enhancing human physiology through external robotic mechanisms. Providing ambulatory capabilities for patients confined to wheelchairs, for example, could change everything we know about disability and simultaneously improve the lives of people who, for whatever reason, need more strength, balance or speed in their daily lives.
Human enhancement could also change vision, hearing, and tolerances for heat and cold without invasive bionics. Every science fiction fan has heard of power armor. The right kind of robotics could turn any person into a mechanically-assisted superhuman.
One of the most important advances in telecommunications has been the concept of telepresence. Think of the video cameras attached to the front doors of some houses in neighborhoods where both parents work. They allow someone to be “home” for certain occasions they would otherwise miss. It won’t be long before there are robotic mechanisms that can do for the inside of the home what the security camera does outside. The first and most popular function of these attendant bots will be the care and feeding of pets.
Telecommunications will also be the basis for mesh networking and the exchange of information between groups of small robots. Consider disaster relief efforts and how difficult it can be for emergency workers to get a clear picture of the wreckage and associated threats. A group of tiny robots could produce a three-dimensional map of any location in seconds with incredible fidelity. They could even locate survivors and injured and assess their conditions. These are things humans and animals may never be able to do unassisted.
Robotics is one of the most exciting areas of technological advancement. If they achieve what microprocessors have achieved in the last 30 years, the results will be close to magical.