Several times during IREX last week, I was asked "What was the most interesting or exciting robot development at the show this year?"
The only honest and frank answer I can offer to that question is that the most "interesting" thing about IREX 2011 was that there really wasn't anything dramatically new or "exciting." that's sad though understandable.
Thinking back over the past IREX exhibitions, the last really exciting show was in 2007. The energy that year was palpable. Everyone was excited. Conversations were heated and dynamic. People were actively discussing and debating how robotics would soon transform our lives. We were all convinced that a bright future lay just around the corner and was easily within our grasp.
IREX is held every other year, and by the time IREX 2009 rolled around the world economic and business condition had changed completely, and not for the better. There were lots of reasons, and excuses for the downturn, with the "Lehman Shock" being the most popular whipping boy.
Certainly the financial impact of the Lehman incident was a major contributor to malaise in robotics during 2008-2010, but it wasn't the only cause. In the years leading up to 2009 everyone was living the dream and drinking the Kool-ade. A lot of the motivation and funding, at least in Japan, came from the government. When that dried up suddenly, major companies found themselves with numerous "future robot" projects that were running on hopes and engineers dreams, but had very little chance to develop into a sustainably profitable business for the long term. They were forced, by economic pressures, to cut projects, downsize, and retrench.
The "future" for robotics is extremely bright. It will, over time, deliver on its promise to improve and enrich our lives. But, at this time in history what we really need are companies delivering "now robotics" not "future robotics."
In an odd way, it seems as if the current robot industry is over populated with Steve Wozniak types and is in desperate need of a few Steve Jobs types. Hopefully, by the time IREX 2013 gets here the situation will be completely different, for the better.