Technology 2012: Four tech trends to watch

4. Robot technology: The future walks among us

Kelly Jordan/The Florida Times-Union/AP/File
In this Dec. 1, 2011 photo, University of North Florida senior biology major Alexandra Legeza prepares a robotic device she is planning to place at the entrance to one of the gopher tortoise burrows she is researching on the University of North Florida campus in Jacksonville, Fla. Advances in sensors, mobility, and remote control are making robots increasingly useful and easier to use.

Robots might still remind most people of science fiction, or real-world auto-industry assembly lines. But robots have been making our lives easier, safer, and more productive in our homes and offices for some time. In fact, you might be carrying one right now.

Siri, the personal assistant software that shipped as part of the iPhone operating system last October, changes spoken commands into search results, texts, and schedule entries – and even responses from Siri “herself.” The combination of rapid processing and artificial intelligence with an engaging interface will typify robotics in the coming years: the science of changing repetitive everyday tasks into an intuitive, often invisible experience that unites human and machine.

Robots already vacuum floors or mow lawns unattended, perform prostate surgery, defuse bombs, and search disaster scenes for survivors. Next will come robots that can take our place at remote meetings, using telepresence – the ability to represent a person remotely using interactive audiovisual equipment. The Anybots QB, for instance, allows your webcam image to appear on the screen of a mobile unit that can roll around an office, patrol a warehouse, or sit at a conference table. It promises to cut the time and expense of business travel and commuting, and will permit workers to inspect facilities and maintain security from afar.

The value of professional service robots in use reached $13.2 billion in 2009, and sales are projected to rise through 2013. Advances in sensors, mobility, and remote control, and designs that make robots more relatable, will boost acceptance. But don’t worry about losing your job to a machine just yet. As demand rises for robot technology, so will the need for engineers, programmers, and technicians, as well as teachers to instruct these new categories of workers. We’re at the dawn of a new partnership with mechanical and software-based assistants, but a robot uprising is still the stuff of Hollywood.

– Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti is the author of "Society 3.0: How Technology is Reshaping Education, Work, and Society." A visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Media X program, she is also vice president and managing director of Apollo Research Institute, which conducts research on the value of education for the workforce.

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