To futurists and some engineers, robots have evolved; they watched the technology spring from the imaginations of science fiction writers and come to realization all around us. That evolution is an exciting signifier of human progress. To everyone else, robots have generally been met with trepid awe, a dull “whatever” or bitter indignation at “slow” progress. After all, Rosie the Robot was supposed to be in every house by Y2K, right?
Robots in the popular imagination have a mysterious air about them. They are machines made away from the public eye, using complicated components, programmed with technical languages, funded with millions by the government or private investors and spoken of in arcane terms by their enthusiasts/creators.
Enter: crowdfunding. Within the past decade, the Internet — precursor to Skynet (just kidding. kind of.) — has become a tool for democratizing nearly everything. It also increased the things that people are interested in. Thanks to websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, robotics has come into that larger, popular fold.
With crowdsourced funding, inventors have a different way to ask for investment. They offer different packages in return for the money; however, unlike traditional investment, they are under no obligation to turn a profit on their creation or worry about their investor’s whims or treat them as shareholders. People fund a project not exactly knowing what they’re going to get, and without knowing if the project will succeed. They just know that the money they’re giving is going toward something they like.
Different kinds of robotic and robot-related projects have cropped up on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, from simple gear boxes for robots to robotic dragonfly spies to DIY starter kits. [Disclosure: RobotCentral is a backer in the Multiplo do-it-yourself kit.] This kind of popular interest could represent a shift from the unknown to becoming fully known, and the process might take robotics from the domain of hobbyists, the military and well-capitalized businesses, and bringing it to everyone else.
The most exciting part of this is the proliferation of DIY kits and open-source projects on the crowdsourcing websites. This could be the path from unseen or peripheral robotics to integrated, appropriate robotics. While this shift could be useful for personal use, it could make research and exploration relatively cheaper and accessible.
The downside: crowdfunding is fresh and exciting, but it is a slow transition, if there is any transition going on at all. Even a large crowd, donating relatively small sums, can’t compete with major investors and military budgets for companies like iRobot and Boston Dynamics. I suppose the questions then become: should there be a competition between high-risk investment robotics used in industry and military, and the smaller, more apparently relevant robotics that are seen on the crowdfunded websites? Should the two be separate, or are they even separate given some overlap? (The dragonfly spy was partially funded with a military grant.) If they are separate paths, then which one will win out and aid human progress more?