So Where are the Robots? How technology is not advancing as much as we think

By Srinivas Balagopal


As a Star Wars fan, I paused to think: why has only the iPhone, and not a C3PO-like robot, become the poster child of the 21st century? After all, the mild-mannered machine sprang from George Lucas’s brain back in the 1970s, a time in which Steve Jobs first began designing the Macintosh that has now revolutionized our world. Shouldn’t the robots be walking alongside us right now?

   It is easy to say that technology has made our world more fast-paced than ever before. But for all of its effects on our society, the progress of technological inventions in our lives has been slowing down. In the realm of medicine, penicillin was developed in 1928 as the first antibiotic ever to be used by doctors. Today, malaria continues to run rampant and puts 91 countries at risk of transmission, while cancer is the world’s second largest fatal disease. In the span of less than 20 years, fueled by international competition, the U.S. sent astronauts into space and eventually to the Moon. Today, launching human missions to Mars has obstinately been stuck in the proposal phase for decades.

   According to the Economy Policy Institute, investments in information technology have slowed down drastically since the 1970s. This spells demise for the unborn C3POs in the making and has already shut down production of several consumer robots. For example, companies that specialize in creating home robots, such as Mayfield Robotics and Jibo, shut down due to poor capital investments. In fact, only iRobot’s vacuum cleaner, Roomba, has remained a residential success since 2002.   

   Biotechnology is being hailed as the next frontier in medicine. Microbristle devices are being developed to perform microsurgery; prosthetics have been installed on human bodies to give paralyzed individuals the ability to walk again; CRISPR promises to make edits to our genetic code to cure health problems of any measure. These prototypes are harbingers of the tangible ways technology can help us lead healthy lives. But the problem is that they are only prototypes.

   We have only been investing in basic research conducted in the 20th century; in other words, we are only building on what we already have from the past, while funding for innovation technologies of tomorrow has drastically declined. But why?

   Commercialization is a major obstacle for these inventions to overcome. The decrease of investments in technology creates a vicious cycle and discourages companies from spending more on products to fully place them on the market. Profit-seeking industries are becoming hesitant to place money in technology that they perceive to have little return on investment.

   The movie “Back to the Future” perfectly illustrates this idea. Inspired by Marty McFly, Nike released its own self-tying shoes, Nike Mag, in 2011 and 2016 only for a limited sale. In Jan. 2019, Nike released its most advanced self-tying shoes, Adapt BB, that was wirelessly connected to an app. However, several complaints arose when internet problems created defects in the shoes’ self-tying capabilities. Although Nike has attempted to commercialize its futuristic product, setbacks have discouraged both the public and investors from advocating for it.

   Let us not forget self-driving cars. Touted by magnates like Elon Musk, the self-driving car has shifted into several gears of automation, relying less and less on human supervision. However, according to experts from Business Insider and MIT, we still have a long way to go. Besides accounting for traffic laws and physical hindrances like potholes, full automation would require a massive cloud network that can communicate with every car on the road: there are not many investors who are willing to cash in to such a

hefty endeavor.

   The only way we have progressed as a society is when we have, sometimes literally, reached for the stars. Our drive to maximize convenience and benefit humankind has brought us so far. If we want to commercialize gene editing, voyages to Mars, self-tying shoes, and autonomous cars, investors need to infuse more time and resources to help those technologies come into our lives.