|2017 WAS THE YEAR THE ROBOTS REALLY, TRULY ARRIVED|
The world seemed different this year, yes? Like something strange has been walking and rolling among us? Like we’re now sharing the planet with a new species of our own creation?
Well, we are, because 2017 was the year that the robots really, truly arrived. They escaped the factory floor and started conquering big cities to deliver Mediterranean food. Self-driving cars swarmed the streets. And even bipedal robots—finally capable of not immediately falling on their faces— strolled out of the lab and into the real world. The machines are here, and it’s an exhilarating time indeed. Like, now Atlas the humanoid robot can do backflips. Backflips.
“2017 has been an amazing year for robotics,” says roboticist Sebastian Thrun, a pioneer of the self-driving car. “Why 2017? Why did it take us so long?”
Well, it was a confluence of factors, namely the cheapening of sophisticated hardware combined with better brains. “In the past, in robotics we had not-so-smart software with hardware that would break all the time, and that's not a good product," Thrun says. "It's only recently that both computers have become smart enough and that robot hardware has become reliable enough that the very first products start to emerge.”
Perhaps the biggest leap in hardware has been sensor technology. To build a robot you don’t have to babysit, you need it to sense its environment, and to sense its environment it needs a range of sensors. Not just with cameras, but with lasers that build a 3-D map of the robot’s surroundings. These kinds of components have gotten both far more powerful and far cheaper.
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