Robot conference points to next big tech industry

The hardest thing about artificial intelligence (AI) is keeping your imagination in check. A visit to some robotic displays at an AI conference opens the mind to incredible possibilities.

Share

The hardest thing about artificial intelligence (AI) is keeping your imagination in check. A visit to some robotic displays at an AI conference opens the mind to incredible possibilities.

Imagine, for instance, CNBC's Jim Cramer, who just about jumps up and down when he talks about the "mobile Internet tsunami," doing something similar for the "robotics tsunami" as the next big industry. It is that kind of thinking that AI can trigger.

However, for the wonder of watching a robot with expressive eye movements, there is a competing reality that progress is slow. For a sense of the timeline, the Conference on Artificial Intelligence marks its silver anniversary next year.

"Early on there was this dream that robots could be generally intelligent; that they would rival and surpass humans in their abilities to do things," Leslie Kaelbling, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT, said at the conference. "The current commercial reality is pretty different."

A lot of AI research fragmented in directions away from robotics, creating algorithms that underpin business intelligence, finance, web and other uses. AI got separated from robotics because the machines are a pain: physical and unreliable. However, "They are getting better," Kaelbling said.

Today, robotics researchers have computers that are faster, machinery that is more reliable, and many of the algorithms used in routine robotic tasks have already been built, said Kaelbling, who asked this research community whether it was time to give robotics another try.

As robots go, the one assembled by a researcher at Brown University isn't pretty. It is an iRobot research device (the company that makes robotic vacuum cleaners that look like pancakes on wheels) that university researchers outfitted with a PC and a camera attached to it. It can zoom around the floor recognising crime-scene like number displays.