Geek Zone: On the edge of a robotics revolution?

Two kids plus two Lego mindstorm kits equals a Robotic Battle of Supremacy. That’s what happened at my house last weekend.

Two kids plus two Lego mindstorm kits equals a Robotic Battle of Supremacy. That’s what happened at my house last weekend.

I teach my kids that building and communicating with Robots is not only fun, but co-existing with robots and being able to speak their language is going to be important for their future employability and perhaps even their survival. So last weekend, we borrowed a couple of Lego Mindstorm EV3 kits. Lego has been selling Mindstorms, which merge Lego, motors, sensors and computers, for over 15 years. The third generation can be voice controlled from your smartphone, with commands such as  “go forward” and “turn left”. The robot does it all with stunning speed and accuracy. However, just like my teenage son, the robot couldn’t understand the command “load the dishwasher, now”. How convenient.

With the rate of technological change increasing exponentially, are we now on the edge of a robotics revolution? What will the not-too-distant future look like? Self driving cars and trucks? Self-guided drones delivering your groceries and pizzas? Robotic soldiers? One recent study showed that robots and computers could perform 50 per cent of all jobs in North America. So a future career as a truck driver looks questionable considering your robot colleagues will drive 24 hours a day and probably much more safely. A future as a robotic truck designer may be a safer bet.

Our billionaire friends at Google seem to think the future looks robotic. Over the last few months, Google snapped up about 15 robotics companies including Boston Dynamics, which makes humanoid robots for the military. What exactly Google has planned isn’t entirely clear, but with massive amounts of money and lots of smart employees and a vision towards the horizon, its not hard to imagine that Google could start manufacturing personal service robots to do your simple chores such as walking the dog, folding the laundry or buying your groceries. Sure, an immigrant (like me) could do some of those chores for you, but for lots of reasons such as rising living standards worldwide and barriers to human mobility (international borders) and an aging population, perhaps it will be more economical to have a small robot that takes up just a couple of cubic feet and speaks perfect Canadian and doesn’t go on maternity leave.

Self-driving cars are almost upon us and legal in several US States. Ironically with people spending so much time on their smart phones while behind the wheel, the preference will soon be to have a much safer autopilot driving you instead so you can read the news or watch a movie while being whisked around the countryside. Next month, watch out for the battle between the reigning German ping pong champion and an industrial robot.

I’ve been going into schools over the last three years teaching hundreds of kids and teachers the very basic fundamentals of computer programming and inspiring their interest. Kids love to “scratch”; our “scratchers” in Invermere and Calgary have been creating and turning imaginations into a visual reality on the computer and with robotic Lego creations.

So in the future, if this all goes bad and the robots uprise against us and your robot slave ever turns on you, here’s a tip: just ask her “What is the largest prime number?”. That should give you time to escape.