Futurists and science fiction writers have predicted for decades that one day smart robots would roll around town doing errands for us.
Today, that future seems still far off. But it's just around the corner. It's all thanks to Google, as well as car companies and universities that are making incredible advances in the technology for self-driving cars.
Google's Prius is already a better driver than you are
In 2004, I was invited by the Pentagon to cover a historic event in California's Mojave desert: The DARPA Grand Challenge.
Google's self-driving cars may soon appear on Nevada roads, where the state's Department of Motor Vehicles approved the nation's first autonomous vehicle license. (Reuters / Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles/Handout)
DARPA, the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wanted to accelerate the development of self-driving cars for use on the battlefield. The agency challenged universities and private companies to enter their robotic vehicles in a contest -- a 142-mile course that had to be navigated by self-driving cars, trucks and even a motorcycle. The winner would receive a cash prize.
None of the entries made it even to the 10-mile mark.
While robot cars couldn't even handle a dirt road in the desert then, now they share the highways with us.
A driver sits in the driver's seat without doing anything and a Google engineer in the passenger seat. This is a precaution and, it turns out, an unnecessary one. Google's self-driving cars have driven hundreds of thousands of miles on public roads without a single accident while under computer control. In fact, the most dangerous thing about Google's self-driving car is the human driver. Once he or she takes the wheel, the risk of accident increases.
Google's is just one of many successful self-driving car projects.
The major car companies -- including Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Ford, GM, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Volvo -- all have advanced self-driving car projects in the works. Many universities do, too. And of course, the Pentagon has been working on self-driving vehicle projects for decades.
Volvo demonstrated its self-driving car technology in Spain this month by the vehicles in a "convoy" in normal traffic. The convoy consisted of a lead truck driven by a professional driver, with a self-driving truck and three self-driving cars following.
From a technology point of view, the self-driving car is ready for wide-scale public use.
The only barrier to broad consumer availability is for governments to legalize them and for companies to build them and make them available for sale.
A robot gets a driver's license
The state of Nevada legalized self-driving cars last summer, a law that went into effect in March. Just this month, the state granted the world's first driver's license to a driverless car -- one of Google's Priuses.
The legalization of robot cars isn't taking place just in Nevada. The California State Senate approved a bill last week that would legalize self-driving cars in the state. The notoriously fractious body approved the measure unanimously. The bill will be heard next by the state Assembly.
Arizona, Hawaii and Oklahoma are also considering the legalization of self-driving cars.
Within a year or two, regular cars will start coming on the market with an "auto-pilot" feature; it will work like cruise control, but take total control of the vehicle. The "driver" will be able to sit there and read a magazine on the freeway. At first, a human driver will be required by law to sit in the driver's seat, even while the car is driving itself.
Eventually, it will be so clear to everyone that the computer is safer without the human driver, that truly driverless cars will be legalized.
Which brings us to the robot revolution
So here's the thing about self-driving cars. The "car" part is optional.
A self-driving car is simply a robot with sensors for perceiving location, orientation, roads, traffic lights, obstacles, and other factors and a computer brain to manage all that sensor information and make decisions about how and where to move the vehicle. The "body" of that robot happens to be a passenger car. But that same technology could be easily built into a Segway-like robot, or a wagon or a cart or a humanoid robot.
The auto-balancing Segway form factor will be advantageous because it takes about the same space as a walking human. That would enable these robots to use not only roads, but bike lanes and sidewalks. They could even enter buildings and roll down hallways.
Once robots have the technology and the legal rights to use public roads as humans do, they'll be able to roam those streets at will, doing our bidding.
This is especially interesting when you consider how it will intersect with another development: the rise of intelligent agents or assistants. Software like Apple's Siri or the many similar offerings available on Android phones combine voice recognition with artificial intelligence to figure out what you say. Then this capability will be applied to something called "agency" -- the ability to take action on your requests.
The most basic kind of agency involves only bits on the Internet, actions like making restaurant reservations. The virtual assistant interacts between the human user and a databased-oriented computer service. You tell your phone: "Make me a reservation at a good Italian place tonight for around 7," and software figures out the details and make it happen.
Siri used to do this before Apple "improved" it. Apple will surely add this kind of agency back into Siri's repertoire of abilities. And if Apple doesn't, Google will.
Once robots are licensed to drive, agency can lead to change in the real world. For example, you'll tell your iPhone: "Siri, bring me another bottle of wine." Siri will know your preferences, know where you shop, know your credit card information, and a Segway-like robot will come flying out of your garage, drive to the store, pick up the bottle (stores will offer robot pick-up as a service) and bring it to your front door.
An alternative is that the wine store has its own fleet of delivery bots. In fact, local pizza restaurants will have them, as will grocery stores, dry cleaners, flower shops and all kinds of other local businesses.
In just a year or two, self-driving cars will go on the market. A couple years after that, the robot brains that control those cars will be installed in all kinds of purpose-built rolling "bodies." They'll move around in the world, running errands for us and delivering things to us.
The futuristic sci-fi vision of robots sharing the roads and sidewalks with people is coming soon. They won't be plotting our destruction, but delivering our pizza.
Who knew that the robot revolution would be ushered in by a search engine company and a bunch of car makers?
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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