About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Robots are an old future - the word coming from Karel Capek in 1920 - and we can all visualise a humanoid robot, a machine designed to do the work of a man. But robot can also mean a machine in software, performing automated tasks, such as the robots that crawl along the links of the web, indexing pages for search engines.

Although these types of robots don't have heads, arms or flashing lights, the central idea is very similar: an intelligent helper who will take on our menial tasks.

Although I don't think that 2013 will see armies of I, Robot-like mechanical robots on the streets, I do think that these software helpers, these embedded intelligences, will become much more mainstream. The trick will be knowing whether they are there at all.

You could describe Google's self-driving cars as robots, and no one knew they existed until Google talked about the project - they are robots disguised as normal cars. There are plenty of examples of people being dependent on their SatNav, to the point of entirely trusting it above their own judgement. Siri and Evi will provide you with search help, saving you the tedious job of typing into your phone.

But what happens if we become too dependent on these automated helpers? Hal9000 is one of the most vivid depictions of an embedded intelligence on which we are dependent. There are already very legitimate concerns about algorithmic trading, and the unexpected interactions this can create. When robots become complex they can also become unpredictable.

So we will revisit Asimov, his laws of robotics, and our old anxieties about losing control of our own development. But the development of movable type also caused anxiety about the damage it would do when we no longer wrote things out by hand. Time moves on, technology progresses, and we find other things to do with our hands and brains whenever we come up with a technology that can support or replace an existing function.

Steve Jobs described computers as a bicycle for the mind - a way to accelerate progress (a point made in this stunning talk by Wilson Miner). What will robots do to our rate of progress? 2013 will be the beginning.