We might finally have our robotics revolution, and smartphones are to thank

Montreal street art <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-364990p1.html?cr=00&pl=edit-00">meunierd</a> / <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/?cr=00&pl=edit-00">Shutterstock.com</a>
Montreal street art meunierd / Shutterstock.com

Looking back to 1950s predictions of what robots might be capable of in the year 2000 is nothing short of humorous — unless you’re in the field of robotics, where the lack of consumer progress can be frustrating. Besides the Roomba, home robotics still has not hit the mainstream, but that might be set to finally change.

The secret to the latest push for home robotics is the technology already sitting in our pocket. The mobile phone.

Fortunately for roboticists everywhere, the “brains” of tomorrow’s robots are being honed and refined by the smartphone technology of Apple, Samsung, and other giants. Putting billions into developing robot sensors doesn’t present a very clear ROI for tech giants, but building a better selling smart phone does. This battle for better, smaller, faster, and more efficient sensors and processors is seen by many as the critical catalyst to the next generation of robotics.

Sensors and sensitive robots

Dr. Eduardo Torres-Jara is an MIT PhD (and now and assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and an innovator in the field of “sensitive robotics” in Boston. His work involves the development of robotic sensors that mirror those in the human hands and feet, allowing robots to have a better sense of balance (humans take for granted just how much “touch” helps us balance and walk), and the capacity to handle more delicate objects (as we do with our hands). 

Torres-Jara said the innovations in mobile technology have made sensors accurate and cheap enough to finally put them in a variety of new places.

A good example involves cameras and sonar technology in modern cars (of the robotic, self-driving kind or otherwise).

Cars are generally the biggest, heaviest, and most dangerous machines people handle on a day to day bases – but only now does the sensor technology make an array of intelligent sensors and safety measures practical.

Cars aren’t the only place where robotic innovations are making a mark.

Kinect and more

Tijn van der Zant is the chief executive of Assistobot and co-founder of RoboCup@Home (a home robotics competition, spun off from the now-famous RoboCup soccer championship). When asked about what has permitted the recent developments in home robotics, he immediately answered by listing the smart phone and the Microsoft Kinect.

Up until the Kinect came on the market, robotics enthusiasts would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a 3-D sensor. With the advent of the Kinect, researchers had even more functionality in a device over a hundred times cheaper than the previous models.

In addition, it’s not just phone sensors (i.e., the camera example from Torres-Jara) that makes them a powerful ally in the development of other robotic innovations. van der Zant and others see the cell phone’s compact computing power as one of its advantages as well. He believes that the battery-saving processors in smartphones – some of which run on just five or ten watts – will also set the stage for the next wave of robotic intelligence.

Accelerating robots at home

Antonio Camara is the founder of YDreams, an emerging technology accelerator in Spain made famous by its robot guides at Santander Bank. He predicts that the next generation of functional consumer robotics will use smartphones for brains.

Camara believes the first “wave” of home robotics will essentially be implants of smartphones into objects that already exist. With the computational power being developed by massive global companies in fierce competition, it doesn’t make sense for new robotics manufacturers to develop their own sensors and their own computational compactness.

If a person’s preferences, apps, data, contacts, and computing power exist in the phone, and if everyone has one in their pocket at all times, why re-invent the wheel?

Though Camara does see the eventual end to this potential era of smartphone-leveraged robotics, he believes that the next five years of robotics developments will not only involve robots built from smartphone parts (as are many of the projects that van der Zant sees in RoboCup), but the use of smartphones as the brain and sensor “hub” of the machines themselves.

What does this trend mean for those companies just coming up in the robotics industry? Will the next generation of robots be Frankenstein creations built from parts of Samsung and Apple phone, or just zombie “husks” that require the connection of a smartphone brain?

Only time will tell, but the signs seem to be pointing to helpful robots invading a home near you.

Daniel Faggella is the founder of TechEmergence, a news and advice website specifically for entrepreneurs and investors interested in the intersection of technology and psychology. He lives outside of Boston and consults with startups on marketing automation and sales strategy.