much bigger market. Then it would actually pay to have a robot, because they would be cheaper than using a person. The first product that I think will comes out of this research is something that fits on to existing vehicles. I imagine it’s about the size of a basketball, and has cameras looking out in all directions, so it doesn’t have to scan or anything. The cameras are already very cheap, and they’ll be even cheaper in a few years. These are little Seamose cameras. The existing vehicle itself–whether it’s a cleaning machine, a delivery robot, or something else like a forklift–is modified so that all it’s main controls come to a plug.
From that plug you can get power, control the drive wheels and steering, and also receive information from any sensors that it has. The plug then connects to a unit that this company will make, which is a standard navigation head with these cameras around it. Inside the head is enough computing power–at least a thousand MIPS–to build three-dimensional maps from the views seen by the cameras. It will have another layer of programming that extracts important information from the three-dimensional maps, which are built from things like the location of the floor, the walls, the doors, and probably people and some kinds of furniture. Then there’s a third layer–the application-specific layer–which makes the robot into a delivery robot, a floor-cleaning robot, or whatever it is that it has to be.
What’s different about the programming in the robots I’m describing, as compared to the robots of the Eighties, is that it’s application-specific, not location-specific. That is, it’s not made for a particular place. It’s designed to be able to learn a new place when it’s brought there. I figure that maybe there’s a market for a few hundred thousand of those, because there are a lot of delivery robots in use, but not as many as there could be. There are tens of thousands used in factories and in warehouses, but they could be used in a lot more places if they were more flexible. You could use them in smaller factories, and in places where there’s more chaos and things change a lot. If they were found useful on forklifts–maybe as a safety assist, or even to automate forklifts–then the market could be in the millions.
But even hundreds of thousands are sufficient, in my view, to develop the technology far enough along to make it credible enough to raise the capital to develop the next round of products, which are consumer products. I figure that could appear somewhere between 2005 and 2010. The industrial navigation head is about for 2005.
Then, after the vacuum cleaning robot, you have a series of more advanced utility robots that start to have arms. They can clean horizontal surfaces, maybe toilets, and can fetch things and put them away. As they become more capable, and are able to do more than one thing, they will eventually become the first generation of universal robots. I still think not too much after 2010 is a possibility for that, although we have a little work cut out for us to achieve that. But, you see, it won’t seem quite so formidable once there is a real mass market for robots. Right now it looks devastatingly hard because there is almost no market–i.e., commercial money–for robots.
If we didn’t have some government research we’d have almost nothing. But that’s going to change. I’ve been waiting for this day for thirty years. I think we’re just about there now. The main reason, of course, being that we have finally enough computer power. The computer power that you can put on a robot is now in the hundreds of MIPS, and will be in the thousands within a few years. That’s enough to give a robot barely more than insect intelligence, sort of the very lower end of vertebrate scale intelligence, which is enough to do basic utility functions. Then you have the evolution that’s outlined in my book of the first, second, third, and fourth generation robots in additional decades.
David: You must be astonished by how few people seem to grasp how much the world is going to change in the next century.