While self-driving cars are capturing a great deal of headlines and consumer interest, robotic technology is making progress in other ways that are not quite as eye-catching but are just as important nonetheless. We are not that far away from a time when robots will engage in conversation, open doors, perform household tasks, and even assist with healthcare thanks to rapid advances in two areas of the tech world that we use daily: smartphones and the cloud.

Tech advances allow researchers to make progress.

The promise of robots has always been a source of great interest, portrayed in cartoons and science fiction novels as something way out in the future.

Despite so many advances in other technology areas, robots always seem to be lagging behind in becoming an integral part of daily life. This may be due to the complexity of robotic design for, as James Kuffner, the chief technology officer for the Toyota Research Institute, described it, “The most complex thing that humans have created is the robot.”

Kuffner spoke last week at the RoboBusiness conference in San Jose, California, where he provided the audience with a peek at recent progress in the robotic space. The researcher showed video footage of test models which are now able to reliably grasp and manipulate objects (including doorknobs), move around objects in their path, and climb stairs.

Much of the recent advances in robotics have come thanks to the widespread adoption of the Smartphone, which carries most of the key technology tools to operate a robot, ranging from motion sensors and locational awareness to a direct connection with the Internet.

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This has allowed researchers in the field to mesh proven tools more easily with robots under development. According to Kuffner, new sensor technology and 3D visualization tools, which are already making their way into smartphones, will continue moving robotic development forward.

Cloud computing will have a major impact.

Another important factor that received a great deal of comment at the robotics conference surrounded the impact of cloud computing. Part of the problem in the robotics field was in being able to program the devices with enough information to operate effectively. The advent of cloud computing is now allowing developers to build a library of reusable skills into the robot’s memory. “This will eliminate the problem of my robot breaking down because I don’t have enough data,” said Toyota’s Kuffner.

In fact, the kind of data sharing that has been enabled by cloud computing is exactly what will speed up the process of making robots more intelligent and useful. A wider data pipe will turn robots into smart devices more quickly, similar in some ways to the popular Echo home services device sold today by Amazon, which continually captures information to become smarter.

Some robotic experts believe that home healthcare may be one of the key areas to see widespread adoption of robots. During a panel discussion at RoboBusiness, Todd Mozer, the CEO of Sensory, expressed his belief that “home healthcare will be a really big killer app.” He pointed out that many people already rely on the Internet to get medical information, so a robot’s ability to visually observe and process an injury could be embraced by the consumer.

Despite advances made in robotics thanks to the growth of smartphone and cloud technology, there are still some factors that have to be solved for the field to make a gigantic leap forward. During Kuffner’s presentation, he described the most critical of these as cost (although cheaper sensors are helping this), safety (an area where self-driving cars still need to improve) and what he called “the ability for a robot to do tasks consistently well.”

If robots can overcome these obstacles, they will meet the forecast in science fiction where they become smart, fast, and reliable. In other words, they will be part of our daily lives, just like a smartphone and the cloud.