Our Robotic Future: The Next 11 Important Steps

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Rodney Brooks is a well-known roboticist and entrepreneur. So given those differing and valuable qualifications and perspectives, I would put a bit more weight than typical in his predictions about the future pace of progress in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

In a recent blog post, Brooks made a number of predictions about these technologies, assigning a date to each forecast along with generally one of three qualifiers: BY (by the date), NET (no earlier than that date), and NIML (not in my lifetime — meaning 2050). To express a fixed range, Brooks sometimes uses both NET and BY.

The entire post is worth reading to get a better sense of this methodology and logic. I am going to highlight just a few of Brooks' predictions, but I think they will provide useful context when discussing issues of supersmart AI or a jobless future.

1. First dedicated lane where only cars in truly driverless mode are allowed on a public freeway. NET 2021. (This is a bit like current day HOV lanes. My bet is the left-most lane on 101 between SF and Silicon Valley (currently largely the domain of speeding Teslas in any case). People will have to have their hands on the wheel until the car is in the dedicated lane.

2. A driverless "taxi" service in a major US city with arbitrary pick and drop off locations, even in a restricted geographical area. NET 2032. (This is what Uber, Lyft, and conventional taxi services can do today.)

3. A major city bans parking and cars with drivers from a non-trivial portion of a city so that driverless cars have free reign in that area. NET 2027. BY 2031. (This will be the starting point for a turning of the tide toward driverless cars.)

4. The majority of US cities have the majority of their downtown under such rules. NET 2045.

5. Dexterous robot hands generally available. NET 2030. BY 2040 (I hope!). (Despite some impressive lab demonstrations we have not actually seen any improvement in widely deployed robotic hands or end effectors in the last 40 years.)

6. A robot that can navigate around just about any US home, with its steps, its clutter, its narrow pathways between furniture, etc. Lab demo: NET 2026. Expensive product: NET 2030. Affordable product: NET 2035. (What is easy for humans is still very, very hard for robots.)

7. A robot that can provide physical assistance to the elderly over multiple tasks (e.g., getting into and out of bed, washing, using the toilet, etc.) rather than just a point solution. NET 2028. (There may be point solution robots before that. But soon the houses of the elderly will be cluttered with too many robots.)

8. A robot that can carry out the last 10 yards of delivery, getting from a vehicle into a house and putting the package inside the front door. Lab demo: NET 2025. Deployed systems: NET 2028.

9. A conversational agent that both carries long term context, and does not easily fall into recognizable and repeated patterns. Lab demo: NET 2023. Deployed systems: 2025. (Deployment platforms already exist — e.g., Google Home and Amazon Echo — so it will be a fast track from lab demo to wide spread deployment.)

10. A robot that seems as intelligent, as attentive, and as faithful, as a dog. NET 2048 (This is so much harder than most people imagine it to be — many think we are already there; I say we are not at all there.)

Sony Corporation announced the launch of the dog-shaped robot called 'Aibo', May 11, 1999. Getty

11. A robot that has any real idea about its own existence, or the existence of humans in the way that a six year old understands humans. NIML.

James Pethokoukis is a columnist the American Enterprise Institute.