Perhaps I'm just tired of waiting for my flying car or hoverboard, but I'm not so optimistic that we'll see certain technologies become popular.

  • Cars that drive themselves. There's lots of research and good arguments about safety and efficiency and congestion. There are already commercial products for parallel parking, distance-controlled cruise control, and lane detection. But I think the real problem is liability. If there's an accident with a car you drive, it's a local problem (you). If a big company's car crashes while driving automatically, there's the potential for a very large lawsuit. Society benefits from automated driving but these companies pay for it. Early adopter individuals don't benefit enough that the companies can charge more. Such an arrangement makes it much less likely that these systems will leave the research phase. I also think congestion is much more likely to be addressed by variable pricing and better information than by automated driving.
  • 3D displays. There's been a recent increase in 3D TV, movies, and video games, but most of the technology doesn't seem any better than the last time 3D flared up in popularity. The image in your eye is inherently 2 dimensional. If it were 3 dimensional you'd be able to see behind and inside things (Flatland is an interesting read if you want to understand this better). To see 3D in your brain you need to have separate images in the left and right eye. You can do this with glasses: color filters (red/blue, used for TV), circular polarized light filters (used in movie theaters), or timed shutters (used in video games). Or you can do this without glasses, by using the difference in viewing angle between the eyes (Philips WowVX for example), but this requires either a single viewer or all viewers to be roughly the same distance from the display. You can also produce 3D effects at a different level of the brain, by viewing different angles (either statically with animation or dynamically with head tracking). The problem is that all of these systems have limitations that exceed the marginal benefit of 3D, once the novelty wears off. So they'll all be used in specialized situations like medical imagery, advertising in malls, and a small number of TV/movie/game applications. But I think 3D displays are not going to be widespread.
  • Humanoid robots. Humans are better than computers at some things: creativity, language, pattern recognition, art, design, reasoning. Computers are better than humans at some things: calculations, memorization, repetitive motion, fast sensors. People seem to think that the future is about making robots that look and work like us, but there's no point. We have plenty of humans. We will build robots that do the things we're not good at. And that means there's no particular reason to use a humanoid form. The future of robots is not humanoid. I think humans with machine parts will become commonplace, but they won't be robots replacing or competing with us; they'll be enhancing us.

In general though I'm quite optimistic about the future. I just think the things that actually succeed won't be the commonplace predictions you see in movies and TV.

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4 comments:

Daniel wrote at Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 8:08:00 PM PDT

We are totally having cars that drive themselves! They'll just take different forms. One is entrainment: physically attaching cars that are going longer distances into a train. It's safer: there can be a "buffer car" at the front and the attachments themselves can crush even before the car structures impact each other. It's more efficient: drafting saves a huge amount of power overall, and the increased packing density increases throughput. It's cheap: once the interface is designed, the marginal cost to support entrainment is very low. And it's robust to many kinds of failures -- the one thing it is not robust to is steering failure on the lead car, and uncommanded decoupling. But that's why cars will be able to drive themselves: in those exceptional conditions, as well as when the human driver is making a mistake, the car itself will take over. In other words, the self-driving technology will only be used when the primary system has failed, so its error rate can be high without its use being negligent.

Humanoid robots are already being used in Japan as carebots. I suspect there will be more of them as the population ages. It may be a niche market -- most people's carebots will probably be in a pet form factor -- but for some people nothing else will do.

It isn't that there won't be people that could have that role, it's just that many paid carers don't do a very good job especially as the level of care required goes up. Since people know this, that creates the market.

dan wrote at Saturday, April 4, 2009 at 4:42:00 AM PDT

The advantage of Robots is that they are potentially cheaper than humans and can work 24/7. It's not a question of having people who can do the work - why employ someone when you can spend $200,000 (say) for an employee that doesn't have days off sick, doesn't need a wage, health insurance, doesn't worry about working conditions, isn't going to sue or join a union, isn't going to get pregnant, can never make a mistake, isn't lazy, can be upgraded, can be resold etc etc

Amit wrote at Saturday, April 4, 2009 at 3:14:00 PM PDT

I agree with Daniel that there will be a place for humanoid robots; I just think they won't be very popular (and Daniel says they'll be a niche market so I think we agree).

I agree with dan that robots will be useful to do lots of mundane work; I just don't think most of them will be humanoid. Once you have a robot doing the work, you can design it to the shape, size, and strength needed for that task.

Anonymous wrote at Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 10:06:00 AM PDT

Are you the same Amit Patel who lived at Scarborough?