Robotics Q&A: CMU's Matthew Johnson-Roberson

Robotics Q&A: CMU’s Matthew Johnson-Roberson

Johnson-Roberson is one of those double threats who offers insight from two different — and important — perspectives. In addition to his long academic career, which most recently found him working as a professor at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, he also has a solid startup CV.

Johnson-Roberson also co-founded and serves as the co-founder and CTO of robotic last-mile delivery startup Refraction AI.

What role(s) will generative AI play in the future of robotics?

Generative AI, through its ability to generate novel data and solutions, will significantly bolster the capabilities of robots. It could enable them to better generalize across a wide range of tasks, enhance their adaptability to new environments, and improve their ability to autonomously learn and evolve.

What are your thoughts on the humanoid form factor?

The humanoid form factor is a really 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, mirroring the natural human interface and interaction. But we probably will see other platforms succeed before these.

Following manufacturing and warehouses, what is the next major category for robotics?

Beyond manufacturing and warehousing, the agricultural sector presents a huge opportunity for robotics to tackle challenges of labor shortage, efficiency, and sustainability. Transportation and last-mile delivery are other arenas where robotics can drive efficiency, reduce costs, and improve service levels. These domains will likely see accelerated adoption of robotic solutions as the technologies mature and as regulatory frameworks evolve to support wider deployment.

How far out are true general-purpose robots?

The advent of true general-purpose robots, capable of performing a wide range of tasks across different environments, may still be a distant reality. It requires breakthroughs in multiple fields including AI, machine learning, materials science, and control systems. The journey toward achieving such versatility is a step-by-step process where robots will gradually evolve from being task-specific to being more multi-functional and eventually general purpose.

Will home robots (beyond vacuums) take off in the next decade?

The next decade might witness the emergence of home robots in specific niches, such as eldercare or home security. However, the vision of having a general-purpose domestic robot that can autonomously perform a variety of household tasks is likely further off. The challenges are not just technological but also include aspects like affordability, user acceptance, and ethical considerations.

What important robotics story/trend isn’t getting enough coverage?

Despite significant advancements in certain niche areas and successful robotic implementations in specific industries, these stories often get overshadowed by the allure of more futuristic or general-purpose robotic narratives. The incremental but impactful successes in sectors like agriculture, healthcare, or specialized industrial applications deserve more spotlight as they represent the real, tangible progress in the field of robotics.

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