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December 30, 2013

In technology, 2013 was a more amazing year than you think

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Rosie the Robot came one step closer to reality. We have long been waiting for robots such as the housekeeper in "The Jetsons." These weren't practical to build because of the massive computing power required to understand human words and the sensors needed for the robots to "see" and move. Smartphones such as the iPhone 5S now have more computing power than the supercomputers of yesteryear, which fit into large buildings and required water cooling. With the shrinking of computers and sensors and their dramatic drops in price, we can now build the robots we dreamed of.

It is noteworthy that Google just purchased robotics developer, Boston Dynamics, as well as seven others. With its self-driving car and these acquisitions, it seems that Google sees robots as big business. Amazon is also installing robots made by Kiva Systems to move boxes in its warehouses. Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos said Amazon plans to use robotic drones to deliver goods.

Whether we realize it or not, the robotic revolution is underway. Robots have advanced to the point that for some types of goods, it is cheaper to manufacture in the United States than China. One such robot is Baxter from Rethink Robotics. It has two arms, a face that displays simulated emotion, and cameras and sensors that detect the motion of human beings who work next to it. It can perform assembly and move boxes — just as humans do. It will work 24 hours a day and not complain. It costs only $22,000. I expect that what is a trickle of manufacturing returning to the United States from China will later in this decade become a flood. I also expect to place my order for Rosie sometime in 2020 and have it delivered by an Amazon drone.

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