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Breakthrough Analysis

Smart Robots

by William Halal and Ann Wang
Monday, October 15, 2007


Event | Data Points | Forecast Data Analysis | Trend Analysis | Articles  

Simple versions of mass-produced robots are being used for routine tasks, and more intelligent versions are rapidly being developed that walk and climb stairs, speak with humans, and perform complex tasks. As computer power, artificial intelligence, and other enabling technologies mature, smart robots are expected to create a new era of affordable and convenient robotic helpers. The Japanese, who lead the field, are even now gearing up to sell millions of robots to serve important roles in industrial work, home services, healthcare, military, and leisure activities. Various experts think that by 2010 the boundary between humans and machine will be breached in ways unimaginable today, much as the World Wide Web did 10 years ago for PCs. TechCast estimates that robot use is likely to take off about 2020.

Event Being Forecast

Intelligent robots that sense their environment, make decisions, and learn are used in 30% of households and organizations.


Selected Data Points to Consider

• Hans Moravec, a leading authority at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, offers the following forecast: By 2010, all-purpose robots should be available for common tasks; by 2020 robots will be able to learn and make choices; by 2025, the robot market will be bigger than the automobile market. (Newsweek, 1/1/00)

• In 2005, the number of domestic robots exceeded industrial robots at 1 million each. (TechnologyReview 12/06)

The UN recently forecast that 4.1 million robots will be used worldwide by 2007 (Technology Review, 10/20/04)

• One expert thinks there should be 55 million robots costing $75 billion by 2010. (, 9/9/04)

• Toyota plans to sell robots that serve the needs of families and the elderly by '10. (NY Times 5/31/05) The Koreans plan to introduce the first multifunctional home robot in '08. (TechnologyReview 12/06)

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Forecast Data Analysis

    Mean Std Dev N (# Experts)
Most Likely Year 2022 6 49
Market Size ($B) 410 228
Confidence (%) 64 14

In addition, 3 experts predicted that this event would never occur; mean confidence: 58%; std. dev.: 19.3.

Note: "Most Likely Year" is the year when this technology is expected to reach the adoption level stated under "Event Being Forecast" in industrial nations like the US, EU, and Japan. "Confidence" is the confidence our experts place in this forecst. "Market Size" estimates the potential market demand when this rechnology matures; global figures are not available, so this estimate is for the U.S. economy.

Forecast Chart

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Trend Analysis

PROS: Trends Driving this Event

  1. GOVERNMENT AND INDUSTRY SUPPORT • Japan has provided generous funding for research into artificial intelligence and robotics. The government expects humanoid robots to become common in homes by '10. (TechnologyReview 5/5/04)
    • The Pentagon has awarded $154 million to turn all nascent robotic technology into a battlefield package. Another $185 million has been awarded to develop automatic navigation systems for vehicles. (Business Week 11/12/01)
    • South Korea has organized a task force of 30 corporations to develop a mass market for "national robots" by '06. "My goal is to put a robot in every home by 2010," said the government manager of the project. (SmartEconomy 10/05; NY Times 4/2/06)

  2. THE TECHNOLOGY IS IMPROVING • A Japanese robot, "Repliee," has rubber skin, flutters its eyelids, breathes, and has natural movements. (Arlington Institute 7/28/05)
    • Koreans introduced Ever-1, a female robot with silicon skin that feels human, a face that interprets emotions and responds in kind, and the ability to conduct simple conversations. (Digital Chosun)
    • Researchers at MIT have developed "Mind Reader, a system for analyzing facial patterns into basic emotions of fear, happiness, anger, etc. (Christian Science Monitor 12/18/06)
    • Self-asembling robots are being developed that reorganize their modules into different shapes to suit conditions and work around failures. (Discover 4/05)
    • The biggest American robot maker, iRobot, is experimenting with insect-like robots that work together using intelligent computer networks. (Fortune 6/1/04)
    • A graphic interface displaying the view from a robot allows users to steer from a wireless laptop. (Accelerating-Intelligence News, 04/07/02; new scientist 2/3/05)
    • Biological systems (e.g., an eel’s brain) can be connected to sensors (video cameras, etc.) and actuators (wheels, etc.) to provide life-like control. (National News 04/17/01)
    • Nitta Corp. is planning to market a five-fingered robot hand, (EE times) and researchers at Johns Hopkins U. demonstrated that brain signals can control fingers on a robotic hand. (TechnologyReview 7/25/07)
    • Fujitsu Labs is using neural networks to teach robots in a more simple, natural manner. (Semiconductor News 3/27/03)
    • Electronic robotic skin with thousands of tactile sensors have been developed to provide a sense of touch. (Nature 7/6/04; LiveScience 6/15/05)
    • Sarcos Corp. is developing a robotic suit, or exoskeleton, that gives the wearer unusual strength. (Technology Review 7-8/04)
    • USC is developing a robotic building machine that lays concrete walls as programmed, eventually constructing entire buildings. (NY Times 5/11/04)
    • An "EcoBot" has been developed that powers itself by catching houseflies for energy. (CNN 1/3/05)

  3. HUGE POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS Industry Although 800,000 ‘dumb” robots now work in factories, new equipment is expected to have intelligent agents within. (BusinessWeek 8/7/00) For instance, Toyota is introducing smart robots to do complex tasks such as finishing work on cars. The Company expects to replace all production workers with robots, reducing costs to match China. ( 1/6/05)
    Military The U.S. military is developing robotic tanks, land cruisers, and aircraft, linked by intelligent networks. (Washington Post). By the end of this decade, it will use fully functional robotic warplanes with the ability to identify targets and make corrections. The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, is designed to fly without a pilot. (Washington Post 8/15/06) By '15, one third of all military vehicles will be unmanned, and robot soldiers are in the works. (Business Week 11/12/01)
    Health Care This field is gearing up to have robots care for millions of patients, take temperatures, and draw blood. Robots will play a personal role as companions for the elderly, providing comfort, reminding them to take medications, and altering authorities if needed. Robot makers see huge needs because of aging societies and the shortage of caregivers. Today, there are 5 workers for every senior citizen. By 2020, the ratio will decrease to 3 to 1. In Japan, it will be 2 to 1. A Sony executive envisions “A robot for every member of the family.” (
    Toys A wave of intelligent toys is entering the market with robotic features, like Aibo, the robot dog. Playmate corporation is introducing "Amazing Amanda," a doll that talks and interacts in a child-like manner. The inventor said, "This doll acts like she loves you." (NY Times 8/25/05)
    Farming Denmark has developed a robot that locates and destroys weeds, eliminating the use of herbicides. (New Scientist 6/7/03) Farmers associations in California are investing $ millions to develop a robotic fruit picker that could be ready about 2010. (Wired 6/21/07)
    Hazardous Work Robots are now being used to fight fires, handle explosives, work in tunnels, and to secure caves in Afghanistan. (Washtech 9/9/03). iRobot aims to create robots that will descend into oil wells to find and repair leaks. ( 12/26/02) An underseas robotic vehicle has been developed to perform tasks 4 miles beneath the surface. (StarBulletin 7/19/05)
    Space NASA used its robot “Dextre” to service the Hubble telescope, and MIT is working with NASA to develop “RoboNaut,” envisioned as an astronaut's assistant. ( 6/10/03)
    • Australia uses robots to drive trucks (APC Magazine 12/16/03)

  4. ROBOTS ARE POPULAR Commercial robots like the floor vacuum, Roomba, are surging in popularity. The Roomba has sold 2 million machines, and is featured among the top 20 items on Amazon's home and garden section, and the No. 1 item among housewares. Familes almost always name their Roomba. The Roomba was the hit of a Saturday Night Live broadcast, and was described as follows in the Washington Post: "Women all over America are cooing over their Roombas. They swoon when it hides under the couch and plays peekaboo. When it retires to its nest and settles in for a nap, it's power button pulsing like a beating heart, they swear they can hear it breath. It's robot love."

CONS: Obstacles Opposing this Event

  1. HIGHLY SOPHISTICATED TECHNOLOGIES REQUIRED Smart robots require acute sensory devices, speech recognition, navigation, and Artificial Intelligence systems (AI) that are as yet beyond the state-of-the-art. For instance, the famous robot, ASIMO, took a nosedive down a flight of stairs recently, which was greeted with hoots and soon found its way on YouTube. (Toronto Star 12/26/06)

  2. HUMAN-MACHINE COMMUNICATION IS COMPLEX To maintain natural give-and-take communication with people, robots have to understand and produce a complex of accurate facial cues, but human emotions are difficult to mimic.

  3. POSSIBLE THREATS Some people are concerned about the danger poised by robots against human beings

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  1. The GW Forecast

  2. Can Computers Think?

  3. Attitudes Toward Androids

  4. Issues in Science & Technology

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