If you build it, they will come
Robots are everywhere. This isn't the stuff of sci-fi. You'd be hard-pressed to buy something on Amazon that doesn't touch a robot across its production, packing and transportation to your door. Take your car. Whether it's the exploration of oil to fuel your car, the arms that assembled your car, or - if you have park assist - your car itself, robots are involved. Surgery, surveillance, research, recycling, rescue, war, entertainment - robots, robots, robots.
But these specific machines are built for specific applications. It was the robots without a mission that captured the greatest imagination - and public interest - at Web Summit this year. Mechanical lifeforms developed purposefully without a purpose. Their creators gave us a broad hint on use cases, but their message was clear: "We're going to hone the mechanics - you now tell us what's possible".
First came Misty, a doe-eyed, plastic mini-bot, brimming with cutesy wiles, belying its creator's Disney background (Ian Bernstein of Misty Robotics was the developer of the wildly successful BB-8 robot toy). Misty watches, listens, speaks, blinks, and whizzes around flat surfaces. She - yes, she's apparently a 'she' - will soon be able to dock herself to charge at night. In a great fireside chat with the FT's Tim Bradshaw, Bernstein described opportunities for Misty in elder care - roving households to monitor and alert family members and care services of anything out of the ordinary. He also could see opportunities for Misty whipping around factory floors at night to detect and report leaks using built-in chemical sensors.
But Misty's true beauty lies in her adaptability - open APIs and an extensible backpack to add whatever code or hardware you care to develop for her. "Maybe there's 10,000 roboticists in the world," said Bernstein, "but there's 23 million software developers." It's Misty's adaptability as a platform that Bernstein hopes will be her making.
Case in point number two was Spot from Boston Dynamics. If you haven't seen the YouTube videos, Spot is a sophisticated, dog-like quadrupedal bot. Commentators enjoy denouncing Boston Dynamics' creations as 'creepy' or even 'terrifying', and they do admittedly tread a fine line at the edge of the 'uncanny valley'. But Spot truly stole the Web Summit show. The visceral joy of 10,000-odd people jumping to their feet, desperate to catch a glimpse of this mechanical miracle, topped my week. Its fluid movement, seen in the 'flesh', is genuinely breath-taking. And Founder and CEO Marc Raibert pitched his address perfectly - a humble mix of fatherly pride and wide-eyed optimism for the possibilities of his team's creations. The military applications that may have fuelled Spot's ancestors, pale into comparison to its industrial potential in the future.
We were given a glimpse of Spot roving the inhospitable reaches of offshore oil platforms - trotting up and down metal stairs to run safety checks on dangerous machinery. Work - I can't help but think - no human will rue the automation of in the future. But as Spot comes of age, and is now available to lease, the company is calling on partners to propose and test imaginative new use cases.
In a popular video doing the rounds on LinkedIn, Steve Jobs says of his vision and strategy for Apple: "It started with: 'What incredible benefits can we give the customer'… not with: 'Let's sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have'." Today, in robotics, the engineers are in charge. Their focus seems firmly fixed on unravelling the physics of natural locomotion (Spot), and reducing size and cost to a point of accessibility (Misty). And in the meantime, they're opening up the potential of their technology to the world - for us to come up with the ideas on how best to use it. Better get thinking - before the robots start thinking for themselves.