In an earlier post, I laid out the reasons I believe functional AI will never be produced on a commercial scale. Harvard University's The Kilobot Project serves to put another nail in the coffin of human-level robotics. Produced at a cost of $14 per robot, the aim of the Kilobot Project is to create several thousand such devices, to enable the real-world testing of systems designed to control large numbers of relatively dumb systems. But it's not a matter of the cost of each robot that suggests the obsolescence of the products of Asimov's U.S.Robotics before the first model ever rolled off the assembly line, so much as the way the robots function.
I.E. - En masse
The Kilobot Project notes that "the robot design allows a single user to easily oversee the operation of a large Kilobot collective, such as programming, powering on, and charging all robots, which would be dificult or impossible to do with many existing robotic systems." The Kilobots are not individually autonomous; indeed, the entire point is to construct a swarm of small, low-level robots rather than individually competent high-level models. And that is what is going to make systems like these the future of robotics. For all that fiction has shown the robot as butler, dog-walker, nanny or confidante, the fact is that the main application for robots is in commercial industry. And there are few things industry struggles with more than high front-end costs. Developing a sophisticated AI that can independently handle a variety of situations would be such a cost, either accrued directly by a firm's in-house R&D or passed on by outside specialists who accomplished the task. Systems like the Kilobots, however, allowed industry to supplement expensive artificial intelligence with inexpensive (at least relatively) natural intelligence.
Sure he can't calculate Pi to a thousand places, but he works for $10/hr.
The story of automation in the workplace is a story of ever-increasing productivity relative to man-hours. Essentially the whole point of mechanization is to allow a smaller number of humans to do the same amount of work for less cost. Introducing expensive and complicated AI would be a step in the opposite direction; the front-end costs would be significantly higher, most industries would not be able to take advantage of the 24/7 schedule they could operate on (the world needs only so many widgets made at any given time), and humans would still have to be included as technical support and troubleshooters. Under the Kilobot model those same humans are involved, but now they serve to cut costs, rather than raise them, something enticing to every firm in every country at every time.
Human-shaped robots that think like humans, with or without Asimov's famous 3 Laws, are impractical and unnecessary. Kilobots may not be the future, in and of themselves, but they represent the next big step in practical, industrial robotics. And the next big nail in the coffin of industrial AI.