Johnson-Roberson is one of those dual threats that offers insight into two different – and important – perspectives. In addition to his long academic career, which most recently included working as a professor at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, he also has a strong startup resume.
Johnson-Roberson also co-founded and is co-founder and CTO of a last-mile robotic delivery startup. Refraction AI.
What role(s) will generative AI play in the future of robotics?
Generative AI, with its ability to generate new data and solutions, will significantly enhance the capabilities of robots. This could enable them to better generalize across a wide range of tasks, improve their adaptability to new environments, and improve their ability to learn and evolve independently.
What do you think of the humanoid form factor?
The humanoid form factor poses a very complex engineering and design challenge. The desire to mimic human movement and interaction creates a high bar for actuators and control systems. It also presents unique challenges in terms of balance and coordination. Despite these challenges, the humanoid form has the potential to be extremely versatile and intuitively usable in a variety of social and practical contexts, reflecting natural human interface and interaction. But we’ll likely see other platforms succeed before these.
After manufacturing and warehouses, what is the next big category in robotics?
Beyond manufacturing and warehousing, the agricultural sector presents a huge opportunity for robotics to address the challenges of labor shortages, efficiency and sustainability. Transportation and last-mile delivery are other areas where robotics can improve efficiency, reduce costs and improve service levels. These areas will likely see accelerated adoption of robotic solutions as technologies mature and regulatory frameworks evolve to support broader deployment.
How far away are true multi-purpose robots?
The advent of truly versatile robots, capable of performing a wide range of tasks in different environments, may still be a distant reality. This requires breakthroughs in several areas, including AI, machine learning, materials science and control systems. The journey toward such versatility is a step-by-step process during which robots will gradually evolve from task-specific to greater versatility and eventually general use.
Will domestic robots (beyond vacuum cleaners) take off in the next decade?
The next decade could see the emergence of domestic robots in specific niches, such as elderly care or home security. However, the idea of having a multi-purpose home robot capable of autonomously performing various household tasks is probably more distant. The challenges are not only technological, but also include aspects such as affordability, user acceptance and ethical considerations.
What important story/trend in robotics isn’t getting enough coverage?
Despite significant advances in some niche areas and successful robotics implementations in specific sectors, these stories are often overshadowed by the appeal of more futuristic or general-purpose robotics narratives. Incremental but significant successes in sectors like agriculture, healthcare or specialized industrial applications deserve more attention because they represent real and tangible progress in the field of robotics.