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The Market for Social Robots
Social Robots
Growth for social robots will only come with large-scale commercial sales.
By James E. Gaskin


Prototype social robotic systems are getting better and better, and the definition of “social robots” likewise continues to evolve. Early definitions described them as “robots that communicate and interact directly with humans, using language or gestures.” Today, some definitions attach the word “autonomous,” raising the bar higher. And at the MIT Media Lab, where a broad range of human-machine research is performed, the abbreviation MDS is used, for “mobile, dexterous, and social,” raising the bar yet again. Still, most wish lists from future robot owners specify even more: mobile, dexterous, social, autonomous, and humanoid.

Next year is the year of the robot, just as was promised five, 10, 15, and even 20 years ago. To date, the only successful consumer robot is iRobot’s Roomba, which may be considered a social robot by those owners who name and talk to their units. Since some surveys find two-thirds of owners name their Roombas, the pent-up demand for an advanced social robot may be considerable, emphasizing the failure of such robots to date.

While 2011 may not be the year of the robot as far as the public is concerned, that same public is served by robots each and every day. More than 800,000 industrial robots make items with better precision and lower cost than human workers, to the point that every car company airs at least one commercial in which welding robots shoot sparks all over the car chassis and television screen. Artificial intelligence (AI) software, a key component in any social robot, helps us search the World Wide Web on Google and recommends books to us on Amazon.com.

This report takes a look at industries that are waiting for social robots, the type of jobs robots will do in those industries, and the likely time frame for commercial products to appear. All bets are officially hedged, because roboticists’ optimism tends to outrun their commercial product releases even more so than in the computer industry.

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