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Successful technology is invisible

Robots like Roomba are becoming part of the home environment and we are paying less and less attention to them. Several more will become usual inhabitants of our homes marking the real advent of robotics in our life. Image Credit: IEEE Spectrum

Long time ago, back in 1995, Steve Jobs in an interview stated that “great technology is invisible“.

Indeed, whilst advanced technology in its first step is indistinguishable from magic, and as such it draws “wows” and attention, as it matures and becomes widespread it is no longer noticed.

Today we are at the edge of this transformation from what robots are concerned. Actually robots are becoming so widespread that talking of “robots” as if they were a single category may be misleading. There are already robots that have disappeared from our perception, think about subway trains that in many cities are fully automatic and we no longer see them as “special”.

Autonomous vehicles are still unusual and as such they attract our attention, wows and concern. Still quite a lot of work is going on and I would expect that by the third decade of this century they will disappear from our perception. In several places universities have started courses specifically focusing on autonomous vehicles.  In Trento, EIT Digital in collaboration with CRF, Engineering, FBK and TIM  has opened positions for Industrial Doctorates at the University of Trento in this area and in the one -related- of Smart Cities.

In a recent interview, published on Spectrum, Joe Jones, the inventor of Roomba, points out that robots in the home are on the same path as computers. If you ask a person how many computers he has/uses the likely answer would be 2-3: a laptop, a tablet. May be some would recognise the smartphone as a computer. But it is unlikely that a person would include the microwave, the washing machine, the anti-theft device, the lift, the car….and yet all of them are being used daily and have a computer (or more than one).

Interestingly, Joe is pointing out that although people may be interested in robots as a novelty, once the novelty effect wears out, the only thing that matters is the utility. In general people like to have a clean floor, they do not like a robot. They are interested in the effect produced by a robot, not by the robot itself.  This is something that robot designers need to take into account, in particular for home applications where the ideal robot is the one that works in the backstage, it is not perceived and does not come in the way.

Roomba, in a way, was designed to become inconspicuous, it can be instructed to clean once no one is at home, but you still need to service it to discard the dust it picked up.

Future home robots will have to become part of the home environment and interact in a symbiotic way with other home systems to really fade out of our perception. And that time is not too far away.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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