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Robots in 2020 - What Will They Be Like?

Updated on August 23, 2017

Robots in 2020 - They're Closer Than You Think!

Robots in the year 2020. What will they be like? Will they remain pretty much the same as they are today? Or are robots about to undergo some dramatic, revolutionary advances in the following decades that will make the stuff of science fiction seem tame? Undoubtedly, it will be the latter.

You see, most people look at the progress that has been made in the past and extrapolate from that to predict the future. Since they have seen relatively slow progress being made in the field of robotics within their lifetimes, they assume that this is the way it is going to be in the future as well.

But there are compelling reasons to believe that the future is not going to be like that at all! This is because information technology, which includes robotics, advances at an exponential rate.

What does this mean? Let's say you took 30 steps linearly, 1-2-3-4-5. How far would you get? Perhaps from the rear edge of the backyard of your home to the far edge of the front yard.

Now, assume you took 30 steps exponentially 2-4-8-16-32-64 etc. Now how far would you get? To the end of the block? To the edge of the city limits?

Actually, according to author Frederico Pistono, you would get to the moon (assuming you could walk in that direction!) ... and back ... and ... still have enough steps left over to circle the earth eight times over!

This is the power of exponential progress!

robots in 2020
robots in 2020

Robots in 2020 and Exponential Progress

What does this have to do with robots and technology? Well, anything that is in information science, which includes the "big three" of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) .progresses at an exponential pace. This is because the costs associated with information technologies are vanishingly small.

You have seen examples of this phenomenon in your own life. No doubt you have had the experience of bringing home a brand-new computer only to find out that it is superseded by new, twice-as-fast models practically by the time you unwrap it.

Information technology progresses at an exponential pace in this way because each new technology and advancement builds upon the ones that came before it.

You may protest, however, that this exponential progress cannot continue forever. No, but it is likely to continue on for a very long time to come.

But what about Moore's law? This applies only to semiconductors, and by the time these reach the end of their useful span of advancement, technology will be ready to move onto the next paradigm, most likely three-dimensional molecular circuits.

This is what always happens with information technology; the end of one paradigm spurs research pressure to move onto the next one.

The foremost proponent of exponential progress is the inventor, futurist and visionary Ray Kurzweil, who has documented with numerous graphs exactly how exponential progress has advanced in numerous scientific and technical fields. In fact, he has written a number of books documenting exactly what this exponential progress means for us in the future, and it is fascinating!

This lens will look at exactly what exponential progress may hold for us in the field of robotics.

Robotics Feature and Interview with Ray Kurzweil - Interview on Australian TV with Ray Kurzweil

This feature highlights Japanese robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro, who creates human-like androids. This is followed up by an interview with Ray Kurzweil, who claims that technological progress is advancing at an exponential rate. In the interview, Kurzweil states that he thinks the age of nanotechnology is actually more exciting than humanoid robots. However, doesn't it make sense that progress in nanotechnology and nanobots will mirror the progress made with large-size robots? We should watch large robots very carefully, since they will give us a clue as to how nanotechnology will progress.

Robots in 2020 or Shortly Thereafter - Based on predictions for the next decade by inventor, futurist and visionary Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil is an inductee into the national Inventors Hall of Fame and recipient of the national medal of technology, the Lemelson-MIT prize (the world's largest award for innovation) 13 honorary doctorates and is the cofounder of Singularity University.

  1. $1000 (in 1999 dollars) will buy computing capacity generally equivalent to the human brain (although, of course, without the brain's sophisticated algorythms).

    This will provide powerful processing capacity for robots for doing such things as making sense of their environment (a decade later the same amount of money will be able to buy the computing capacity of 1000 human brains!)

  2. Virtual reality will gain a new dimension of realism with "three-dimensional virtual reality displays, embedded in glasses and contact lenses," says Kurzweil. If robots are not yet a common component of everyday life, this may at least allow us to play astounding virtual reality video games in which simulated robots are major characters.

    Kurzweil even predicts highly realistic tactile environments, as well, in which you can feel the world you are interacting with (although in my opinion this is not likely to happen in the time frame covered by the predictions for this decade; it may not happen until the following decade or later).

  3. Most interactions with computers is through gestures and two-way natural-language spoken communication. This will also allow us to communicate in a natural way with physical robots.

    You could argue that this is already the case today; after all, we communicate on our iPads by voice and use gestures on our tablets and other devices. However, since no reference is made to surfaces, it seems clear that Kurzweil is referring to gestures in the air, using a technology similar to Microsoft's Kinect.

  4. Some paraplegics and quadriplegics will be able to walk and even climb stairs through nerve stimulation and exoskeletal robotic devices. (In addition, blind people will "routinely use eyeglass-mounted reading-navigation systems." Deaf people will read what others are saying to them through eyeglass-mounted displays.)

    It could be argued that some paraplegics and quadriplegics are already able to walk and climb stairs through exoskeletal robotic devices, at least experimentally; the real question is how common this will be by 2020. However, the prediction sounds like some people will use these devices in everyday life.

  5. Automated driving systems will now be installed in most roads. It is assumed that, since the book was written and published in the US, this prediction refers to the United States, so that robotic, self driving cars will become at least commonplace, if not yet universal. In Nevada, the laws already allow for it, and some few robotic cars are already on the roads there.

    However, PopSci predicts that while it will be "certainly doable," it will not be by 2020. Even self-parking cars, while already in production, are far from commonplace. According to PopSci, "we don't yet have the wireless infrastructure" required. Plus, I don't see the enourmous changes in our social and physical infrastructure for this being in place by the end of 2020.

    BMW forecasts cars will be "highly automated" by 2020, driverless by 2025. "Highly automated" means that the human driver must be able to take over the driving task when needed but can let the car handle many routine chores of driving.

  6. In addition to becoming more and more sophisticated, robots will become smaller and smaller during this decade, paving the way for nanotechnology, in which microscopic robots (or nanobots) will become commonplace. These will achieve increasingly practical applications during this time and in the following decades. In fact, Kurzweil predicts that Nano-engineered machines will begin to be "applied to manufacturing and process-control applications."

Exoskeletal Robotic Devices

Kurzweil predicts that some paraplegics and quadriplegics will be able to walk and even climb stairs through nerve stimulation and exoskeletal robotic devices. (In addition, blind people will "routinely use eyeglass-mounted reading-navigation systems." Deaf people will read what others are saying to them through eyeglass-mounted displays.)


ASIMO: Honda's Advanced Humanoid Robot - Will these robots in 2020 be capable enough to assist in the home?

What is the world's most advanced humanoid robot? Why, Honda's ASIMO, of course!!

ASIMO is not a Japanese word, but is an English acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility. It is a product of over twenty years of research by Honda Motor Company.

This advanced robot can walk forward and backward, turn smoothly, maintain its balance on uneven and sloping surfaces and even climb stairs.

ASIMO has two legs, two arms and two hands and is in every respect very humanlike in its form and movements.

This is not to fulfill some science fiction fantasy, but to accommodate itself to the demands of reality, since it will someday need to work in human environments, grasp objects, flip light switches and open and close doors.

The compact automaton, although only about the size of a fourth grader, represents huge possibilities for the future of robotics. The robot moves so smoothly and naturally that it almost looks like a little man wearing a space suit. It can even disco dance!

ASIMO can also respond to hand signals and voice commands and can recognize the faces of a select number of people.

Honda hopes that one day the robot will be able to assist disabled people, the elderly and others with their day-to-day activities. In the future it might also be able to perform dangerous operations such as clearing hazardous wastes or fighting fires.

Buy a Robotic Vacuum Cleaner by iRobot - You can experience the future today!

Robots in 2020 - But What About Jobs?

This could be the decade in which job elimination outpaces job creation

Finally, we come to the very important issue of jobs in an increasingly automated society. The whole point of automation is obviously to eliminate human labor, at least that involving tedium and drudgery.

But where does it end? Is there a point at which we can say that all tedious human jobs have been eliminated and only the interesting, fulfilling ones remain? Will there ever be enough of these jobs available for everyone who wants one?

Kurzweil says in his book, The Singularity Is Near, that "we destroy jobs at the bottom of the skill ladder, but we create a larger number of jobs at the top of the skill ladder."

Unfortunately, this fails to recognize that as jobs continue to be eliminated from the bottom of the skill ladder and added to the top, an increasing percentage of jobs will eventually be available to only the smallest percentages of people-the intellectual elite, if you will.

The average guy who's a truck driver now will never be able to be retrained to be a nuclear physicist (at least not until brain augmentation occurs, which is not until the long-term future).

robots in 2020 automation
robots in 2020 automation

Exponential Economic Expansion

Could robots in 2020 and beyond usher in a new age of abundance?

Another key economic prediction of Kurzweil is that,

Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which had been a reality in the computer field during the twentieth century, is now occurring outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply affected by the accelerating improvement in the price performance of computing.

In other words, Kurzweil predicts that the exponential trends that affect genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will eventually spill out into the economy as well, causing unprecedented economic growth and, presumably, a large enough "safety net" for anyone who is not able to be retrained for all of these jobs that will be created "at the top of the skill ladder."

Obviously, in light of the current recession, this has not yet happened. Of course, the economy is expanding (as it does even during recessions), but not in any way that reflects exponential growth.

Kurzweil's prediction still stands over the long-term, and as exponential progress reaches the explosive stage, we could see a massive expansion of the economy. In light of the exponential progress that Kurzweil predicts, it seems natural to expect that this will occur. However, we do not see this happening yet., so it's possible that it will be a few years (or even decades) away.

Will Robots In 2020 Steal Your Job?

Mass unemployment, climate change, resource depletion, starvation, worldwide violence and civl unrest

Within a couple of decades, Kurzweil predicts that there will be "almost no human employment in production, agriculture, or transportation. Basic life needs are available for the vast majority of the human race."

It is true that we create jobs at the top of the skill ladder even as automation destroys them at the bottom, but can this continue on indefinitely? Does the exponential growth that Kurzweil predicts not imply that jobs will eventually be destroyed by automation at an exponentially greater rate than we can create new ones? After all, that is the nature of exponential progress.

Kurzweil seems to expect that the expanding economy will take care of everything, but what if jobs are destroyed at a greater rate than the economy expands? After all, we're talking about a delicate balance of economic forces here.

Perhaps that's why Frederico Pistono, author of Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's Okay, predicts the potential for mass unemployment, climate change, resource depletion, starvation, worldwide violence and civl unrest if we don't take steps to avoid these unintended consequences of job loss.

Robots Will Steal Your Job - ...But That's Okay!

Robots Will Steal Your Job on Amazon

Automation will eliminate most jobs

Will robots steal your job?

Get the App - IEEE Spectrum's Free Robot iPad App

IEEE Robots iPad App
IEEE Robots iPad App

The IEEE robots app for iPad shows just how fast the field of robotics is advancing. It includes polls, over 500 spectacular full screen photos, 360° views, links to hundreds of videos, detailed specs and articles, and coverage of more than 150 real-world robots.


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