The SuperBot is a set of robotic modules that form and reform linear or solid shapes, such as this walking humanoid form. Developed for possible use by NASA in planetary exploration, SuperBot can walk, crawl, climb, and carry things depending on its form.
Thanks, Rob. Yes, it's already starting to look like robots are replacing cheap labor again, even in China. It's been reported that Foxconn plans to "solve" it's widely publicized labor problems by replacing humans with millions of robots:
Because all of this work is still in R&D it might be easy to dismiss it as blue-sky. But I discovered while doing the background research for this article that many of these projects have been underway for several years, and much of what's being done now is second- or even third-generation R&D. There's an awful lot of brains and money aimed at developing self-assembling. self-reconfiguring robots. I came away with the feeling that the future is going to be very different, indeed.
In the past, there has been the myth that robots create more jobs (in robot design and manufacturing systems design) than they replace. But it's simple economics -- if robots create more jobs than they replace they would not be economically feasible -- and apparently they are economically feasible.
Rob, I agree--in fact, it's simple arithmetic. I'm getting a little tired of hearing about all the supposed new jobs that will be created instead of all the jobs that will, obviously, in fact be taken away. What's also ignored in those arguments is--what happens to all the people whose jobs are taken away? And what happens to all the people trained for, and dependent on, that shrinking pool of good blue collar jobs?
For this approach to gain traction, there may be a need for a killer app or specific market for these modular, self-reconfiguring robots to prove themselves in. OEM machines are often very niche oriented (relatively low number of new machines per year and a huge installed base developed over a much longer period). Makes it difficult for new approaches to break in.
In the early years of computers, the computers did indeed create more jobs than they eliminated. That was partly due to poor implementation and apps that were not well designed for labor savings. That, of course, changed in time.
With robots, I wouldn't expect that delay. I would imagine the apps are available as the robots are created. So the labor savings would be immediate.
Ann, this technology seems to reflect what we've already seen in numerous sci-fi books and movies. There are many examples, but one that jumps to mind is Terminator 2, where the terminator robot re-assembles itself after getting shot.
@Rob: The problem with your "simple economics" argument ("if robots create more jobs than they replace they would not be economically feasible") is that economics is not a zero-sum game. Higher productivity creates economic growth, which creates jobs.
Companies don't make money by eliminating jobs, they make money by selling products. If automation allows a company to make products at a lower cost, they can sell more products. If they sell more products, they will make more money. If the company makes more money, they will have more money to invest -- including in new employees.
Al, the main apps I've heard of mentioned more than once are consumer, like reconfigurable furniture, or reconfigurable robots for space exploration and search and rescue. That's the macro-level tehcnmologies. For the nano and micro-Ievel it's usually various medical uses such as drug delivery mechanisms.
A new compression molding compound material combines the light weight, strength, and rigidity of carbon fibers with the flexibility and lower cost of glass materials in a composite compatible with automotive production.
Plastic bearings are real and millions of them are in use doing heavy-duty jobs we used to think only metals could do. Some of Germany-based igus's bearings are traveling around the world as functional parts in a car to demonstrate what they can do.
Baxter showed off his 2.0-derived moves at ATX West this year. The big red guy still looks pretty much the same, but has some new abilities, mostly due to software. The research robot version is now being used in corporate R&D departments as a design platform.
End-production using 3D printing, including objects made of multiple materials in one pass, is getting closer to reality as we saw on the exhibit floor at the recent Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show.