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Blindsided by robots?

Finance Blogger: Anthony Harrington Anthony Harrington

Businesses always have to have one eye on the metaphorical horizon, watching out for that paradigm-busting innovation, that something different that is so much a break from what has gone before that it changes the rules of the game for whole industries. Fortunately for business, most such technologies—the internet, PCs, notebook computers, and mobile phones are obvious instances—take time to gain traction. This gives business several years to work out how to benefit from the new technology and to monitor and adjust to the take up by the competition, so that they are not the last shop in town making horse-drawn carriages in the age of the motor car.

So where is the next “big thing” to come from? Setting aside drug breakthroughs, since longevity and its impact on society is material for another day, likely candidates for some severe disruption of the status quo include nanotechnology, virtual reality simulators, and robotics. This go round we’ll content ourselves with a quick squint at robotics with a sprinkle of nanotech on the side.

Robotics as a technology has been around in one shape or another for decades but a number of recent developments should give many a manufacturing, engineering, or service company pause for thought. Researchers at MIT have tackled and apparently solved the “dead hands” problem of robotic touch. By giving the robot hand a “skin” comprising a layer of nanotech gel laid over an extremely fine mesh, pressure on the outer “skin” pushes electrons from the gel through the mesh. The more pressure, the greater the electron flow, so presto! We have super-sensitive touch. Of itself this is huge, but it doesn’t give you Marvin the all purpose household robot at a price every home can afford. (MIT’s work on robotics is covered in a short brochure [PDF, 743 KB] intended as a briefing for industry).

A good place to look for Marvin, so to speak, is NASA’s robotics lab. NASA wants robots to work in inhospitable environments, like the surface of the Moon or Mars, neither of which it has given up on yet. It wants humanoid robots because, well, astronauts and the rest of us feel more comfortable around a humanoid shape than around an arachnid shape, even if multiple legs are better that two in rough terrain. NASA’s Robonaut is evolving at some speed, under a combined NASA/General Motors project. Its latest model R2 (short for Robonaut2) is what NASA calls “the next generation dexterous robot.”

NASA wants R2 for the moon, GM wants a car assembly shop full of R2s bleeping around, and nary a union in sight. We are talking here about a walking, dexterous robot, not a giant arm bolted to a chassis and restricted to “n” movement patterns. The idea is that the robots should at least be able to use the same tools as humans and be able to work safely side by side with their biological colleagues.

The health and safety implications boggle the brain, but NASA is hopeful it will get to the point where R2 won’t accidentally nail an astronaut’s head to the wall or pick up a long ladder, stick it horizontally under one arm and then turn, taking out a score of bystanders in the process. Achieving safe working in a mixed robot/human environment is going to take some doing, but the strides that have been made in the last 10 years are breathtaking. Expect to see some serious deployment rather more quickly than you had imagined.

Further reading for robotics in business

Tags: disruptive technologies , innovation , research and development , robotics
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