Robotics in 2008 and 2009: What happened in 2008 and what might happen in 2009

By | January 1, 2009

First, I want to wish all of you a happy and prosperous new year! This blog continued to grow in 2008 and we now receive 50% more traffic than the year before. On December 31st, the last day of 2008, Feedburner stats also reported that we finally reached 2000 subscribers in combined RSS and email. Thank you all for continuing to read this blog.

This past year has been an exciting one as far as new developments in robotics are concerned. A number of new robots were commercial introduced (most of them toy robots) while scientists continued to develop new algorithms advancing our ability to construct intelligent robots and better understand human intelligence. Don’t forget that we can now have autonomous cars driving for hours in city traffic (c. 2007), legged robots traversing rough terrain, and unmanned aerial vehicles performing complex maneuvers. New exoskeletons such as the ones from Sarcos (c. 2007), Cyberdyne, and Honda have, for the first time, been demonstrated as valuable tools capable of extending human abilities past the limits imposed upon us by nature.

Robots have also continued to decrease in size and price. There a large variety of robotic kits available for sale today at affordable prices. Compare that to when I started graduate school in 1999 when as far as I can recall there were 0 such kits available in the market. Robocup has also continued to flourish in 2008 with the legged robot league continuing forward even after Sony’s AIBO was discontinued years ago.

Faster computers with more memory and lots of bandwidth have continued to place state-of-the-art robotics and artificial intelligence algorithms within reach of hobbyists. Anyone can download the latest copy of Microsoft’s Robotics Studio, purchase iRobot’s cheap but very capable Create robot and go on to do amazing things at home using only a computer worth a few hundred dollars; I am talking about robotics work that 10 years ago could only be found in advanced robotics laboratories requiring hundreds if not millions of dollars in funding to operate. Even today, however, those with a bit of extra money to spend, an NVIDIA Tesla desktop supercomputer is now available and very capable for doing some serious number crunching at the laboratory or even at home.

So, where are robotics and artificial intelligence heading in 2009? This question is very hard to answer as any predictions about future technology in the long and short terms are bound to be proven wrong in due time. I’ll make a couple of predictions but don’t quote me on them.

I believe that the trend of cheaper and better (as in more capable) robotic kits will continue in the new year. Most of these robots will be targeted to the hobbyist and toy markets. Robotics research around the world will continue at more or less full speed even though the current economic crisis might make it difficult for scientists to get funding at the level of previous years. I believe that robotics is the next big industry that will move the world economy forward and past the current crisis just the way that the Internet did in the nineties and the computer industry before that in the eighties.

In 2009, we are also going to see the first few robotic systems designed to tackle Google’s Lunar X-Prize. I don’t think that any robots will make it to the Moon this year but we are going to start seeing more activity that has to do with this challenge. The Moon is a very exciting destination once more and 2009 will be a pivotal year to our return to its surface especially for private enterprises which have never been there before.

Once more, it is very difficult to make accurate predictions about future technology so I could be entirely wrong. Time will tell if I am right or wrong. Keep reading this blog to find out. Our robotics adventure has only begun and the voyage will be a long but exciting one. Stay tuned!