Ever since The Jetsons, we've been led to believe the age of robots buzzing about our kitchens is nearly upon us.

But according to a renowned US robotics expert visiting New Zealand, that future is still a long way off – and we'll be likely to first see machine-driven air taxis flying about cities.

Professor Malcolm MacIver, the director of Northwestern University's Neuroscience and Robotics Laboratory, investigates how mechanic principles of animal behaviours can be incorporated into robot design – and in turn, what this can teach us about animals.

His work has been acknowledged with a special award from former US president Barack Obama – and seen him consult on science fiction movies and TV shows.


A speaker at this week's New Zealand International Science Festival in Dunedin, MacIver told the Herald that a long-anticipated robot future is still many decades away.

"We keep dreaming of this future where we'll have robot butler to help us fold our laundry or put the dishes in the dishwasher, but we are a long ways from that.

"People keep thinking it's just around the corner, but the corner keeps receding into the horizon – so it's kind of a fool's errand to put any form of hard timeframe on it."


MacIver explained that simply picking up an object with our hands and manipulating it involved hundreds of different physiological functions – many of which we still didn't understand.

"We'd like a robot that can do things like that, but we're still very far from a robot that can just do something as trivial as pick up a cup.

"We currently have a whole bunch of electrical motors that aren't very robust and can break down – doing something that's complicated, with many degrees of freedom, means we need a better motor."

Another big barrier was the fact general-purpose robots would need to be able to harvest information from what he called "noisy environments".

"We keep dreaming of this future where we'll have robot butler to help us fold our laundry or put the dishes in the dishwasher, but we are a long ways from that," Professor Malcolm MacIver says.

"We humans are really good when faced with ambiguous situations like driving in fog, or getting up in the middle of the night to go to the loo – we can do these things with very little information, but robots are really bad at that."

Advancing at a much faster pace was artificial intelligence (AI), thanks to the rapid development of smart new algorithms.

He expected it would be just years before we could ask our smartphones to check our schedules and book appointments, or contact restaurants to make reservations.

Within his lifetime, MacIver also predicted the advent of autonomous air taxis.

"I feel they're a much better idea than autonomous cars, which have to deal with unmodelled errors like other humans on the road, who may be driving drunk.

"But autonomous air vehicles, so long as humans aren't driving them, will be dealing with an environment that's pretty predictable."

One thing he certainly didn't expect to see, meanwhile, was the much-hyped notion of a Judgment Day-style robot apocalypse.

"There's this misconception that they'll become some sort of enemy to us; I think it's weird to think that they'd have any sense of purpose against us.

"That's sort of a science fiction thing and I get frustrated with it because it's too disconnected with where we're at in the field now."