What if personal robots were as ubiquitous as smartphones? What if they were as affordable as smartphones and we could download apps to them to customize them. In the way that we think about coffee shops or offices without WiFi connections as deficient, in how many years will a home without a robot seem to be utterly lacking something?
These are questions Brian David Johnson, a futurist at Intel, has been asking himself and others, as he considers what technology might look like in 10 to 15 years (so that Intel can start building it today).
Delivering a keynote at the CE Week conference in New York June 25, Johnson pointed out that humans have already begun living with robots—the vacuuming kind.
Thanks to the Roomba, "there are now more robots in people's homes than there are in factories," said Johnson.
The thinking around robots—the kinds uninterested in the dust balls under the bed—experienced a major change two years ago, with the introduction of 3D printing.
"With 3D printing, open-source hardware design and a whole army of makers and builders and students, we could actually start bringing robots to life," said Johnson, who dreamed up Jimmy, the 21st Century Robot. (One of his team's mottos is that every robot should have a name, and so be as individual as the person who built it.)
Jimmy is Intel-based and open source. And while he's little and paper-white and has a cute alien look, the idea is that anyone could design and 3D print their robot's exterior, which would be paired with Intel-developed technology (the robot's heart and brain, as it were).
An early version of Jimmy—powered by an Intel Core i processor and essentially a "desktop with legs," said Johnson—can be purchased at the 21stCenturyRobot site for $16,000. While not a bad deal, as robots go, the next version of Jimmy has Intel Edison inside, a 3D-printed shell and a price of $1,600.
"That's a 10x cost reduction in literally a couple of months," said Johnson.
While most robots are designed to do the "3 D's"—dirty, dangerous and dull work— Jimmy is social—the way your phone is social. If you want Jimmy to dance, you could download an app for that. If you want him to tell you when people are re-Tweeting you, he could do that. Exactly what he can do will depend on how creative app developers and makers can get. Jimmy has one operating system that's impacted by the apps that are downloaded, and another that can be programmed to create—not artificial intelligence, exactly—but a type of personality.
You could have a shy robot, say, or a happy one or a grumpy one. And the way a bashful robot would respond to an alarm clock app, for example, would differ from how an outgoing or sporty robot would.
"These robots are super-smart—they're like a smartphone equivalent. But it's small AI [versus big AI] and app-based," said Johnson. "The idea is that you're in control. It doesn't have full autonomy." He added, grinning, "If you don't put the World Domination app on it, we'll be OK."
Certainly, though, there could also be very practical and important uses for a Jimmy. Intel has been working with a lab at the University of Southern California that focuses exclusively on kids with autism, elderly people who want to remain in their homes and rehabilitation.
Johnson gave an example of how a child could draw a robot, and that picture could be used as the design for a 3D-printed robot that's given to the child's grandmother and twice a day reminds her to take her medication.
Regarding the lab's work with autistic children, Johnson described it as "very tricky and very important," and said that the robots are being used almost as therapists. That speaks to the bottom line of the 21st Century Robot Project.
"They're a proxy for other human beings," Johnson said. "Ultimately, these robots are extensions of our own humanity."