Meet Your Wait-Robot

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A U.S. government intelligence agency thinks robots may be so capable by 2025 that questions such as "Would you like fries with that?" may be uttered by a smiling machine at the order counter.

The National Intelligence Council, in a report titled "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World" that was released last week, offered its long-range strategic thinking about the military and economic challenges the U.S. will face from other countries over the next 17 years, as well as the environmental challenges ahead. The report also looks at technologies, and it includes some sweeping ideas about the future.

IT workers have long been familiar with the ways that advances in automation have reduced the need for people, especially in data centers. By 2025, robotics technology will be far enough along to take over low-skilled jobs, according to the NIC.

That could provide benefits, such as enabling robots to be used to help provide care for the elderly. But the machines also may be far enough along "to disrupt unskilled labor markets," the NIC said, adding that they could also affect immigration patterns by taking over some jobs now performed by migrant workers.

Vendors such as MobileRobots Inc. already are offering products that provide an idea of what the future may look like. Meanwhile, a British artificial intelligence researcher wrote a book last year predicting that humans will fall in love with and even marry robots by 2050.

The NIC's report doesn't address that possibility. But it does say that robotic technologies may be used to augment human capabilities, much like in the 1970s television show The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off The Bionic Woman. At the extreme end, the report foresees the possible development of an exoskeleton resembling "a wearable humanoid robot, that uses sensors, interfaces, power systems and actuators to monitor and respond to arm and leg movements, providing the wearer with increased strength and control."

What may be more widespread, the NIC said, are "human cognitive augmentation technologies" -- wearable devices that can help improve vision, hearing and memory.

Separately, the agency also predicted that by 2025, there will be an "Internet of Things" created by the ubiquitous use of radio frequency identification tags on a wide variety of physical items, such as food packages, furniture and paper documents. Such objects will be able to be located, identified, monitored and remotely controlled via the Internet, according to the report.

The vast reservoir of RFID data will be managed on high-performance computers connected together via next-generation Internet technologies, the NIC said. It contended that the trend toward increased use of RFID is inevitable and will be driven by the need to improve supply chain operations and logistics as well as energy efficiency and data security. But privacy concerns will create a big barrier to entry for companies, the agency said.

Other predictions in the report include a belief that new kinds of energy storage technologies, such as batteries and fuel cells, will emerge by 2025. In addition, much of the report focuses on how the U.S. will fare in a changing world. "By 2025, the U..S will find itself as one of a number of important actors on the world stage, albeit still the most powerful one," the NIC said.

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