In Defense of “Boring” Robots
By Mikell Taylor, Senior Director of Sales Operations and Customer Support, Veo Robotics
Your dreams of robots, androids, and automatons changing your life are probably informed by science fiction and limited only by your imagination. So it can be disappointing when you’re confronted with the reality of today’s robotic products, especially those designed to be companions and have human-like social qualities. Claims about what AI is and might be able to do seem hyperbolic when you’re struggling to get Alexa or Siri to do simple tasks. Compared to what you might envision, they are extremely limited and will continue to be for some time—there is, unfortunately, no Moore’s Law equivalent for robotic manipulation or general AI. But while flashy robotic technologies are fun to daydream about, they’re not rooted in practicality and I’d argue you should be more interested in robots that can reliably do things you don’t find interesting. I think we all need to get more excited about boring robots.
I’ve always heard the mantra that robots should be applied to anything that is “dull, dirty, or dangerous.” And that’s why we love them so much—it means humans get to do all of the exciting and creative work while staying safe. But to most people, boring robots are not shiny, metaphorically or (often) literally. They don’t get a lot of hype, and they don’t elicit the “ooh, cool!” response you might get if you announced you were working on a “robotic butler.” They might not do all the things, but only one or two things. They might do their work out of sight and even fade into the background of your life or work so that you forget that they’re there at all. You might forget they’re even robots. But they are, they’re just boring ones.
I recently moderated a panel at the Nantucket Conference titled “What’s Next in Robotics.” One of the panelists, Christian Cerda, is the COO of iRobot and has spent a lot of his career working on one of my favorite boring robots: the Roomba robotic vacuum. In response to someone who asked for advice on what kind of robotics companies would be good to start, he said: “If you aren’t practical in robotics, go do something else.” This, I think, is the fundamental goal of robotics—robotic technology should be a practical solution to an actual problem, not a solution that exists for no reason other than to be cool or novel.
Years ago, while managing the delivery of a robotic system I worked on, I was chatting with an end user in between training sessions and he jokingly asked if the robot did any tricks. I regaled him with the details of the high-precision navigation system and the cutting-edge acoustic technology in the payload. I was extremely proud of it. But he looked bored and said, “Okay, that’s nice, but what does it do?” The fact is, people don’t care about what your robot is; they only care about what your robot does. What problem it solves. What practical, boring task it accomplishes for them.
When we imagine our robotic future, we imagine all kinds of robots but seldom focus on why we would need them. Consider the “robotic butler,” what problem does it solve? I don’t have a human butler to greet guests and fetch drinks at my home; do you? So why would I need a robotic one? What I do have is laundry to fold, toys to pick up, windows to wash, walls to paint, and myriad other boring things I’d rather not spend my time doing. No human butler would help me with those, and I haven’t seen a robotic butler that can do them either. What would help is a bunch of boring little robots specifically designed to solve those mundane problems.
One of the most practical applications for robotics is manufacturing. There are a lot of dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks in manufacturing, in contrast to those that require flexibility, dexterity, judgment, and ingenuity. When both need to happen in close proximity to one another, manufacturers currently have no choice but to have humans do it all—including dull and dangerous things like lifting. Veo is working to make it possible for people and robots to safely work side by side in manufacturing settings so that people can focus on the interesting stuff, fixing problems or dealing with the unexpected. The robots can do the boring stuff instead, and that’s the point. It’s what they’re best at. Isn’t that exciting?