I was a panelist for the WTIA forum on Trends in Robotics last night. I had a fun time prognosticating and hearing other perspectives from the other panelists on the recent and future impact of robotics. We seemed to be in consensus that new sensing technology—physical (e.g. fiber-optic force sensing, laser scanners) & computational (e.g. deep learning for regression & classification of sensor data)—and innovations in compliant actuation and complex locomotion will enable some really interesting new applications of robotics in the near future. Especially in collaborative robotics (sharing the workspace with humans) and semi-structured environments like agriculture, home health care, and surgery.
There was an interesting question at the end asking what we think is our responsibility as technologists to society as related to the potential disruptive impact of robotics and automation. My take on this is that engineers and technologists must participate actively in discussions with policymakers around the impacts, both positive and negative, of technology. As technologists, our role is to accurately represent the potential technical impact, and we have to work hard to be realistic about the potential negative impacts—we have a strong tendency to be optimistic about the net benefit of our work. And, while providing our input as technologists, we also should participate in the discussion as members of society.
I, for one, advocate that as a society, we take a slow approach to technology and leaving ample time for ethical considerations. But I am very optimistic about the potential impact of robotics, especially when I consider applications like in-home assistive systems, surgical robots, and innovations that allow us to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.