Why Apple Should be the SECOND Big Company to Make Consumer Robots

From I, Robot. Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Apple is a company with great values and makes best in class products. And so when a new technological opportunity comes along, we're naturally enthusiastic about Apple getting into the game. But in the case of commercial, family robots, it'l be wise for Apple to keep its powder dry, invest in artificial intelligence with cars, and let another company take the initial risks.


The Particle Debris theme article this week is by Jillian D'Onfro who tells the inside story of Google's ambitions plan to roll out consumer robots. "Google’s robot group struggles to fill leadership vacuum as it shoots for ambitious launch before 2020." It's really good.

Google's robotics division has an initiative called "Replicant." It's a collection of companies that have been acquired as the group works towards the launch of a consumer robot by the year 2020. The story itself is very well done and covers the history of the project and the after effects of Andy Rubin's departure. In itself, it's a very good background article.

But that's just the beginning of the story about our future with commercial robots. The article reminded me that, in our current state of technology development, we're in a headlong rush to make everything we've ever conceived of happen. And make it fast. The future is always now.

There are several reasons for this. First, companies that are experts at hardware and software integration are desperate to get a jump on the competition. Getting out in front and going big has its advantages, as Amazon knows so well. Second, our modern facility with technology means that, in the words of Walt Disney, "if you can dream it, you can do it." It's exciting to be first.

This kind of thinking has propelled us into an age of the Internet, smartphones, tablets, exotic automotive technologies, and eCommerce. Just like all these technologies, robotics is also going through development phases. For years, we've had manufacturing robots. The Japanese have specialized in the technologies of personal robots with Asimo. Alphabet, as described above, is working on usable consumer robots. In a strong sense, autonomous cars are robots on wheels with situational awareness. We ride inside the robot.

And yet, the subtle implications of the human, especially children's, interaction with consumer robots will be one of the most challenging technologies homo sapiens has ever confronted. This is an area where going slow as opposed to rushing into production will probably be wise, but doing so violates every technology tenet we've developed over the last few decades.

As we move closer to the reality of consumer robots, we're able to size them up and make some predictions abut how they'll impact our culture and economy. See, for example, "Robots may shatter the global economic order within a decade." More importantly, our current state-of-the-art in software and hardware often means we're not able to fully understand all possible outcomes. A good example of that may well be Toyota's recent troubles.

It could well be that we're still in an immature phase of software development in which humans are totally outclassed in their ability to diagnose the consequences of a robotic system with 100 million lines of code. (Here's just one example.) It will require a second generation of intelligent agents and robots to diagnose themselves and learn, faster than humans can, how code is operating, what its faults are, and good ways to fix.

That's why one might argue that consumer robots coded by mere human beings will be the most dangerous and unpredictable consumer products ever devised.

As a result, early robots will have defects. Accidents will happen. People will be injured, possibly killed. (This has already happend with a dumb industrial robot.)

Apple has great reputation as a company that we admire, love and trust. For Apple to jump into consumer robots too early could risk all that. It's far better for Apple to keep its power dry (as Steve Jobs once said) and use its expertise in artificial intelligence and sensors for the development of autonomous (robotic) cars while other companies take the risk of hurrying consumer robots to market.

In this critical technology area, many companies will rush to market and fail spectacularly. Then government regulations will kick in. Meanwhile, A.I. agents will get smarter about how to diagnose themselves and report. A time will come, call it Phase II, when a new, smarter, more sophisticated age of consumer robots will arrive, perhaps 20 years from now. Apple will likely benefit from holding back until then.

That's why when it comes to consumer robots, it'll pay to be the second or third big company to get into the field, not the first. That's also why, for now, Apple seems to be focusing on the autonomous car as a stepping stone technology. We've heard nothing about any attempt by Apple to compete with Alphabets's Replicant, and that looks to be the smart way to go. For humans.

Next page: the tech news debris for the week of November 9. The iPad revolution has started.

Page 2 - The Tech News Debris for the Week of November 9


Microsoft is working hard to escape the mistakes of the past. One that continues to plague is the execution of its smartphone strategy. One has to wonder when Microsoft will see the light and move on. Here's are some interesting observations from Marguerite Reardon at CNET . "Is it time for Windows Phone owners to throw in the towel?"

Image credit: Apple

iPad owners have fallen into easy, accustomed ways. The hardware and software haven't advanced fast enough to inspire great leaps in the way we use iPads. The most popular of all the iPads was the iPad 2, and it's the one still in the most use. See "Most iPad owners are using outdated devices, and that’s a disturbing trend for Apple." For all those users, it's still "good enough." The iPad Pro aims to change all that. This new iPad is the beginning of the end of the old thinking.

Its larger display invites new ways of thinking and doing and invites developers to adopt the same strategy. For example, Microsoft is updating its Office apps to be optimized for the iPad Pro. The best business analysis I've seen that explains the future of the iPad, starting with the iPad Pro, comes form Mike Elgan. "Don't Underestimate the iPad Pro."

You're probably going to be hearing more about this new, very fast, capable and beautiful iPad Pro more than any other iPad ever discussed.

Recently, Apple SVP Eddy Cue talked about the future of TV. "What is Apple's next big step with TV?" Say what you will about the technical details of the 4th generation Apple TV, there is no doubt Apple is laying important groundwork. It will come by degrees as Apple learns how to amplify and leverage the tendencies of viewers, via software evolution, and it won't happen overnight. While you won't see a definitive statement of Apple's overall strategy here, this interview provides son tantalizing glimpses.

Speaking of the Apple TV, from a strictly consumer and technical standpoint, here's the best review I've seen by Dwight Silverman.

Moving on. If you need a PC and Windows for your work, you have one. It doesn't make sense to abandon your business tools, productivity suites and workflow for a tablet. However, for years, people who used a PC at work thought that their only option, aside from an expensive, alien-feeling Macintosh, would be another (cheap, home) PC.

Today, that turns out to not be the case.

And so, it's perfectly natural for Tim Cook to say, with a straight face, to millions of home computer users, "Why would you buy a PC anymore?" It's the logical thing to do.

Have you wondered how Apple's quarterly profits compare to the other tech giants? Here's a chart that tells the story.

Finally, I've seen a strong undercurrent of sentiment that the reason one should not bother with 4K UHD TV is that there's very little content. In fact, that's never why we upgrade our systems. Technology evolution is all about intelligent transitioning, not a giant burst of 100 percent conversion. Every Macintosh owner knows that from the many transitions the product has made over the years.

It could well be that many will buy an early 4K TV and work with a hybrid system, 4K + 2K. Components get replaced piecemeal. It's the technical journey and the learning process that's fun, and anyone hoping for an instant, magic day, when all is perfect will be bitterly disappointed.

Lionsgate is remastering its film library in 4K. Sony is cranking up new releases on UHD Blu-ray. UHD Blu-ray players will be out in a few months. The other day, I was in my local Costco, and every big TV on active display was 4K UHD model. Models with HDR, which is important, will be be big after CES in January.

The TV industry is moving briskly ahead with 4K UHD because it must, and while it will be many years before the majority of content is 4K UHD, and all the players are on the same page technically, the same was true with the 1080p revolution. Today, I still see many SD commercials with black side bars, and not every channel on satellite is HD. Many early (and very usable) HDTVs were 720p, 1080i, and rear projection. Remember those? Jumping forward, this Wired article from earlier in the year still has great information on the similar 4K UHD state-of-the art and transition.

The trick is to intelligently upgrade, avoid costly mistakes, plan ahead, do a lot of reading about where the technology is going, and ride along with the migration in a fashion that pleases one and stays within budget. Not everyone will phase into the 4K UHD technology at the same time and same rate, and nothing will happen all at once. That's probably another reason Apple was relaxed about a new Apple TV with just 1080p. As we saw in the Eddy Cue interview above, his company has bigger fish to fry.


Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week (preamble on page one) followed by a discussion of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.