April 15, 2014      

There were plenty of events happening around the United States to celebrate National Robotics Week, but the third annual Xconomy Robo Madness still managed to bring together more than 100 heavy hitters from the robotics community for a half-day event.

Hosted at SRI International, Robo Madness was a nice survey of the industry’s hot topics, from drones to education to investing.

The on-stage discussion stayed pretty high-level; panelists shied away from answering controversial questions about the impact of robotics on the job market, and most companies were coy about their future plans. But there were some key themes that emerged over the course of the day.

The “Year of the Robot” May Never Exist

John Markoff, a journalist for The New York Times, asked one set of panelists ?when will be the year of the robot?? The discussion continued on-stage and off-stage for the rest of the day. One attendee suggested 2013 was already the year of the robot, while plenty of others noted robotics is always ?just three years away? – and we aren?t in a substantially different position today than we were a few years ago.

The most compelling answer that I heard was there never will be a year of the robot, just as there never was a year of electricity or the Internet; robotics, as a broad class of technologies, is slowly shifting our economy and our habits. There won?t be a real tipping point, so much as a gradual diffusion of robotic technologies throughout our lives.

This answer made sense to me because of another key theme that emerged:

Download the “Self-driving Cars Are Here: What’s Next?” Research Report for in-depth analysis about the future of autonomous cars, complicated legal issues, investment trends and more. Download report

Autonomy is Easy; Relationships Are Hard

David Mindell, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of the history of engineering at MIT, anchored many of the discussions about autonomy. His work on autonomous devices in extreme environments, from the moon landing to the Mariana Trench, suggests what others confirmed: autonomous operation is rarely the most desirable state for a robot.

Safety concerns and operators desires to have some control over the outcome and behavior of a robot are among the current reasons. But as we become more comfortable with and confident in robots abilities to operate autonomously, we?ll find that designing autonomous systems will require thinking deeply about their interaction with humans, making them responsive to our needs and desires.

Rethinking What Makes a Robot Successful

CyPhy Works CEO Helen Greiner and Melonee Wise, co-founder and CEO of Unbounded Robotics, both discussed the ways in which their products don?t need to do everything to do the right thing for their customers.

From CyPhy?s drones with their delicate tether for transferring data and electricity between the airborne device and the ground station to Unbounded Robotics less-than-dextrous hand, both speakers noted that they can provide all of the necessary functionality without wasting valuable resources – from R&D time to device weight – on features that don?t meet customers core needs.

Wise demonstrated how this kind of thinking can drive clear, useful product design and strategy by walking the audience through the history of PlatformBot, a previously un-discussed Willow Garage project that helped spark the idea for Unbounded Robotics’ UBR-1.

Data is the Killer App for Robots

The value created by a robot?s ability to manipulate the world around them will be dwarfed by the value created from their ability to collect data. From environmental monitoring to 3D mapping to facial recognition, robots are bringing the ability to apply sophisticated data analysis tools to the real world, in real-time.

Google?s foray into robotics is just one indication of this dramatic shift. This recognition was a clear part of the roadmap for nearly every company at Xconomy Robo Madness.