First of all, I do agree that the original article’s predictions are very optimistic. I do not agree however, that robotics have progressed painfully slowly.
The reason the optimistic predictions of the 1970’s haven’t come true is because we have vastly underestimated the computational power it requires to perform tasks that for us humans seem simple. Almost every human is able to get up, walk downstairs, open the fridge door and make himself some breakfast. We do all of this without giving it a second thought.
It turns out the things we thought were hard such as math, chess, remembering large sets of data, etc are in fact incredibly easy to do for computers (I do realize computers brute force chess, but could a human do that?). The things we take for granted such as bipedal motion, object recognition, communicating with other humans in fact require a tremendous amount of information about the world and a tremendous amount of computational power to process it all.
Robots take advantage of the exponential gains in computer power as predicted by Moore’s law. And Moore’s law has been going steady for years now. Yes, I realize hardware isn’t everything. But it’s certainly a bottleneck. (I don’t think anyone believes they could achieve the same result IBM’s Watson did on a 1000$ computer if they just wrote better software.)
I never understand why people quote ‘The Jetsons’ when it comes down to futuristic predictions. It’s a cartoon. I mean, it’s not like we look at the Flinstones and says ‘Oh, that’s what people in the 1960’s thought the Stone Age was like? Getting served by dinosaurs and driving in stone vehicles?!’. The Jetsons is obviously not an attempt at a realistic prediction about the future. Did anyone (with actual credibility) really think we’d have anti-gravity flying cars by now? I have never in fact seen someone with the credentials to back it up actually predict that we’d have flying cars by now, and certainly not that they would be ubiquitous. People always say this, but I wouldn’t know where it comes from. (If someone knows, don’t hesitate to let me know.)
You say that there was banter about cars driving themselves. How has this not come true? We have seen Google’s driverless car driving 230,000km with only occasional human intervention. The only time it has had an accident was because a human was driving it. The prediction about 30% of all cars being driverless by 2015 seems optimistic to me but more because of legal reasons than technical. Think of the legal implications of driverless cars, who is to blame when there is an accident for example?
TED Talk about Google’s driverless car for more information:
Also, you quote robots that folds previously unseen towels, I assume you are referring to the PR2:
How can you not be amazed by this? So what if it takes him almost 2 hours, Moore’s law will soon speed it up. And that’s if they don’t even improve the software behind it.
We are not going to wake up one day and read in the paper about how there was some ‘big breakthrough’ in robotics and we can all go out and buy a 500$ personal robot from Wallmart who drives us around and does our laundry. It will come gradually but faster than you might think. (And I’m sure anyone who has seen the impressive gains in computer power since the 1950’s will agree with me.)
We are already seeing it today, I am sure you have someone you know that owns a Roomba. Robots are helping us fight wars, often autonomously with only a human there to pull the trigger because else it would be unethical. Sure, Robots are expensive today, but as history has taught us, this won’t last for long. The technology will become cheaper and more powerful.
I am certain that the progress in automation in the following century will seem just as impressive to us as the industrial revolution did to the people alive back then.