Pervasive Robots

This blog has been authored by Daniela Rus, Director, Computer Science and AI Lab (CSAIL), MIT & Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To listen to her, join us at DESIGN & ENGINEERING SUMMIT 2017  

Just two decades ago, computation was a task reserved for the few. Computers were large and expensive and hard to access.   A person needed a level of expertise to know what to do with them. Today everybody has a smartphone. Computation has become the new normal—so normal, in fact, that we stopped noticing how central it is to almost every part of our lives. This raises an important question. In a world so changed by computers that help with thinking work, what might it look like with robots that could help us with physical work? How much work will we be able to offload to machines to save lives and increase the quality of our lives? For example, autonomous cars will absolutely ensure that we will no longer have road fatalities and will give our parents greater independence in their retirement, and to all of us the ability to go anywhere anytime.


The field of robotics has the potential to greatly improve the quality of our lives at work, at home, and at play. For years, robots have supported human activity in dangerous, dirty, and dull tasks, and have enabled the exploration of unreachable environments, from the deep oceans to deep space. Increasingly more capable robots will be able to adapt, to learn, and to interact with humans and other machines at cognitive levels. Robots are becoming more capable due to their ability to execute more complex computations and interact with the world through richer sensors and better actuators.


Today robots have already become our partners in industrial and domestic settings. They work side-by-side with people in factories and operating rooms. They mow our lawns, vacuum our floors, and even milk our cows. In a few years, I believe they will  touch many more parts of our lives.


But to make that possible, we need to solve a challenge. Right now, making and using robots is a task reserved for the few because it requires expertise that most people don’t have. Specifically, robots are made of a body and a brain, but very few people have skills at both fabricating the body of the robot and coding its brain. While there are a lot of open-source tools available to help with coding, there aren’t many to help with making. You have to already be an expert. 


This needs to change. And to change it, we need to advance the science of autonomy, engineer tools for people to make things, and educate our students, simultaneously in computational thinking and what I would call “computational making.” This is the only way to ensure they will be prepared for a future with machines seamlessly integrated into the fabric of life.

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