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2016 could well become the year of the robot. Writing for the MIT Technology Review, Will Knight identifies five trends to watch for in robotics in the coming year.
First, there’s China. “The world’s largest economy has embarked on an audacious effort to fill its factories with advanced manufacturing robots,” in the hope that it will help its competitive edge in manufacturing after decades of economic development have driven wages up sharply. China has already invested heavily in robot technology, but the scale of this undertaking is unprecedented. The province of Guangdong, China’s main manufacturing area, has pledged 154$ billion to install robots in factories. Foxconn, the company that makes iPhones and a myriad of other devices, plans to install over a million robots in the next few years. If China succeeds in this, ripples of the effect will be felt around the world.
Machine learning is also about to get significantly better. While robots have always been great at doing repetitive work, advanced learning mechanisms will expand their use into other, less carefully set up areas of life. Deep learning has shown remarkable results in image recognition, now companies are planning to use the approach to give robots the capacity to see, grasp, and reason.
Here is a great talk by computer vision expert Fei-Fei Li on computer image recognition:
The third trend to look out for is robots sharing the knowledge they have with other robots. There are already several projects aiming to give robots the ability to share their knowledge over the internet. This could significantly accelerate the learning process, allowing robots to instantly benefit from what other have already learnt.
Next, “personal” robots. Several companies are planning to launch personal robots this year. With hardwarebecoming cheaper, and software better, it’s not surprising that now looks like such an opportune moment to unleash robotic helpers unto the world. Giving robots recognisable enough characteristics, making them comfortable to be around, while at the same time making them useful is a tricky balance to get right. While science fiction has been predicting personal robotic assistants for years, it will be interesting and exciting to watch how well they integrate into our lives.
Finally, 2016 seems like it will really be the year where drone really take off. Drone Air traffic control systems are soon to become a reality, making the flying machines much safer to be around, and drone registration is now a requirement in the US and other countries. Drones probably won’t be filling up the skies quite yet, but a number of new technologies for autonomous flight, surveillance, and load carriage are being tested right now that could take unmanned aerial vehicles to the next level.