PhotoA new report from Juniper Research predicts that more than one in 10 U.S. households will own a robot by 2020 – fewer than five years from now.

If that sounds startling, consider this – one in 25 households already have one.

To understand the prediction, you need to understand what Juniper means by “robot.” While most of us conjure the image of R2D2, Juniper is talking about so-called ‘task’ oriented robots assigned to take over household chores, such as lawn mowing or vacuum cleaning.

Examples of these devices include iRobot’s Roomba and Droplet Robotics’ Sprinkler. They offer convenience for consumers and provide an improvement in overall housekeeping.

Work in progress

Our popular conception of a robot, a human-like device with artificial intelligence, remains a work in progress, but according to Juniper is on its way.

The report says the performance of these more complex robots, such as SoftBank’s Pepper, while improving, are limited by current technology. But technology is changing. To meet consumer expectations, smarter, more contextually-aware robots are on the drawing board.

To get there Juniper sees the need for more computing power and a big increase in efficiency if processing is to be offloaded from the cloud. As a result, evolution in chip design, such as IBM’s TrueNorth, will become important in the future.

Price and trust

Research and development costs pose one impediment to rapid robot development. Trust is another issue. The Juniper researchers cite studies that indicate that trust between robots and humans is rapidly eroded, even if a robot is able to perform better than a human on average.

“The state of consumer robotics could be compared to the PC in the late 70s,” said research author Steffen Sorrell.”Venture capitalist and corporate investment has ramped up tremendously recently – they know that this is the start of a paradigm shift in the way we use and interact with machines.”

The good and the bad

Robots are already in use in many hospitals and the report predicts healthcare will be the fastest-growing field for robots. With an aging population, robots are being designed to assist the elderly with simple daily life functions.

But some really smart people see a rather large downside to rapid development of robots with artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking, for one, has warned that machines, if they become too clever, could kill off the human race.

It's not that the robots are evil, Hawking says. It's just that their goals might not be aligned with ours.

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