Does Google’s Buying Spree Mean the Robot Apocalypse Is Near?

Think the robot apocalypse may be near? Reconsider. Although Google made headlines for snapping up eight robotics companies in the next half of 2013, and again for dropping a reported $400 million on artificial-intelligence startup DeepMind the other day, one entrepreneur with a deep background in robotics says we’re quite a distance from being subjugated by intelligent machines.

"Generally you need to keep our expectations about such technology fairly conservative," says Tandy Trower, the founder and leader of Seattle-based Hoaloha Robotics, whose mission is to create robot companions for older people.

And Trower knows from robots. Before striking from his own in ’09 2009, he founded Microsoft’s robotics group beneath the watchful eye of Bill Gates. However when Steve Ballmer, who replaced Gates as CEO, said he wasn’t thinking about pursuing health-care applications, Trower felt he couldn’t turn his back on the chance of improving people’s lives.

"Our mission is to provide a companion robot that will aid this growing population of individuals who face up to the challenges of aging, disability and disease," Trower says. "We don’t see ourselves in the role of replacing human care at all, but instead we desire to bridge the gap between your growing amount of people who need support and the shrinking amount of people who can offer it."

However the Hoaloha robot, he estimates, won’t to enter the market for at least another 2 yrs. For the time being, components will continue steadily to get cheaper, which can make it simpler to hit the price selection of $5,000 to $10,000 that he figures would put his robot at your fingertips for consumers. "But I wouldn’t expect any dramatic leaps regarding robots in the house or artificial intelligence," Trower says. "It’ll be more of a progression regarding the items we’re already using."

In essence, which means algorithms made to achieve specific tasks — not holistic, human-like thinking and imagining. Look at a calculator, Trower says. A good basic desktop calculator can do calculations faster and more accurately than a lot of people. But, unlike a individual, it does not have any perception of what it’s doing. The same is true for IBM’s Jeopardy-winning Watson.

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Both areas where the robotics industry did an unhealthy job, says Trower, are in providing real advantages to consumers at a feasible price and in providing an attractive method for users to connect to the technology. He mentions the trumpet-playing robot that Toyota introduced in the past. Although the technical achievement was impressive, it lacked a interface. How does it translate to changing regular people’s lives? he asked himself.

Despite his skepticism, Trower himself is wanting to bring robots to the masses. In his conception, Hoaloha’s robot will manage to moving on its, understanding its environment — at least greater than a Roomba does — and getting together with its owner on an even far beyond Siri’s.

But with the promise of an agreeable robot sidekick comes the necessity to avoid making a real-world Clippy the paperclip, Microsoft Word’s erstwhile office assistant that drove users crazy and which Time named among the 50 worst inventions. "Unless you do it right, it could be tremendously annoying," Trower admits.

For many of these reasons, people fearing a robot takeover can rest just a little easier, though techno-utopians dreaming of the Singularity could be disappointed.

"The theory that we’re on the cusp of this where we are able to either merge with machines or accept them as our peers — I don’t see that happening for a while," Trower says. "We still have quite a distance to go."

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