Robots as Servants: the Current Standing

robots, industrial
Scara Industrial Robot

Robots have been in service in industry such as assembly lines for some time, but they are not “intelligent” nor are they mobile. They are programmed to perform a single task – make a series of welds on an auto body, for example – over and over with great speed and accuracy. Their advantage is that they don’t get bored, tired or distracted and don’t require a potty break every 30 minutes.

Americans are quite familiar with such devices as the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner by iRobot, a similar unit will clean your pool. These are true robots as they do work independently of your input, they are not merely remote control devices, nor do they wander about aimlessly hoping to get the entire floor clean – eventually.  While they do manage to go around obstacles, get themselves unstuck and run a spiral “grid” of sorts to be sure the entire area is cleaned, they don’t seek out dirt to collect, just suck up what they encounter.  Another brand (Neato Robots) claims it’s version does not need to bump into obstacles, but uses laser range finding to explore the room ahead of it and map out a course to avoid contacting your furniture.

Robots To Entertain/Educate

Other not so well known Bots are the Roborover; an exploration robot that learns as your child plays with it, Wrex the Dawg; a playful pooch-bot and Tri-Bot; a talking companion robot that tells jokes and plays games, all from WOW Wee.

More sophisticated robots are available overseas, such as the iRobiQ, from Yujin Robots of South Korea; a nanny-bot that is capable of reading to your child and, if the child refuses to hand over the book, iRobiQ can read it upside down! In Korea, this ‘bot is used to teach English to school children. It accepts voice commands and can even roll itself into the kids room and send back a picture via your cell phone to let you see that the little darlings are sleeping soundly.

There are robotic training aids in use to teach people CPR, medical diagnostics, dentistry and even child birth.

But so far, while useful and sometimes entertaining, these robot’s functions are pretty basic; they are a long way from being able to help put Granny to bed.

Robots as Janitors

robot office cleaning systemAs mentioned in the previous segment, Japan and Korea are way ahead of the USA in robotics advancements. Pictured at right is the Fuji Heavy Industries robotic vacuum, which is used in large office buildings in Japan. It is fully autonomous in that it will clean all the hallways of one floor of an office building, without running over anyone or toppling the water cooler, then commandeer an elevator (politely announcing that this elevator is in maintenance mode, please take another car) go to the next level and repeat the process. It can work, unsupervised, all night, never need a coffee break, and won’t demand overtime.

Top Dog Robot

robots, Asimo by Honda
Meet Asimo

Also in Japan, you will find the world’s leading example of robotics: Asimo by Honda. He is a little short, even for an oriental, but as these video clips show he can walk, run (in an awkward, mechanical fashion), turn in place, back-up and carry a tray of food without spilling it. All without remote controls. But even Asimo has a ways to go. In an interview appearing in the August 2010 issue of Popular Science Magazine, Colin Angle, CEO of robot maker iRobot points out that should this clever robotic fellow encounter a closed door, he’s stuck. He does not have the computational power required to reach out, grasp a doorknob, turn it and walk forward, pushing the door ahead of him.

Other operational humanoid robots from Japan include Palro and the spooky Geminoid. Korea boasts on its Hubo as it’s equivalent of Asimo, but also offers the HSR series, and Mahru.

The front runner for the USA, according to Popular Science Magazine, is CHARLI-L, the progeny of the Robotics and Mechanisms class at Virginia Tech.

All of these autonomous, humanoid robots show a lot of promise, but have a long way to go. Robotics researchers are looking to the new generation of “quantum computers” which will use ion traps to harness atoms and use them in their computational structure allowing thousands of simultaneous computations and an overall speed around a million times faster than today’s best computer, to provide the answer to their computational blockage. This kind of processor promises to give autonomous robots the capacity to “think” quickly and completely enough to perform more complicated tasks through artificial intelligence.

Dennis Hong, founder of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms laboratory whose students created CHARLI-L, was thrilled when in the finale of RoboCup 2011 the full-size humanoid CHARLI-L2, making its public debut at RoboCup, won the adult-size robot soccer match with a penalty kick, beating Robo Erectus of Singapore 1-0.[1]

In a Popular Science interview Hong says, “It’s a high end academic exercise dressed up as an entertainment event. Break the goals – kicking balls at a target, basic dribbling, and trying to slowly block the very slow shots from other robots – into individual processes, and the to-do list grows very long. To eventually build the brunch making ‘bot of the future, we must first win the RoboCup, and that is very hard.”

In this same Pop Sci article, iRobot CEO Collin Angle said that the difference in national robotics program is in the vision of their progenitors. Japan has embraced Asimo as a broad, long term investment in a wide range of scientific challenges from materials science to artificial intelligence. It’s not a robo-butler, it’s a stake in the ground, a totem of Japan’s belief that our future will be full of helpful, sentient, Japanese-made machines. That kind of open ended vision doesn’t work here (America), where our funding environment rewards near term projects, not totems.

Robotic Components in Our Lives

Our lives are (or could be – if we chose to) filled with semi-intelligent devices;

  • “Smart” refrigerators with sensors that enable the appliance to determine the time of day when it’s most likely to be opened, such as around dinner time. This results in food staying fresher longer, since the refrigerator will train itself not to start the defrost cycle during the time of day when it’s least likely to be opened.[1]
  • Automobiles that can sense objects behind them and automatically apply the brakes and self-parking automobiles.[2]
  • Autonomous robotic lawn mowers.[3]
  • Cell-phones that use the internet to answer your questions and advise you on the weather and status of your dinner reservation.
  • Home security systems that can turn lights on and off to simulate you being home, and anticipate your arrival and departure and set climate control to your preferences, while going into energy conservation while you’re way.

These have all been developed because someone said, “How can we make this better?” but the scope was to make this one device perform more fully (short term goals), not to set out on a journey that could possibly bring about major evolution in the way we live our lives (totem) like Honda has.

But Real Robots?

At present human-like robotics available to the general American public are the kids toys listed above (which are barely human-like), vacuums and those robotic sex dolls[4] which have only the one purpose.  Once those can cook, clean house and mow the lawn then we will probably begin debates over including automatons in our definition of marriage.  Asian households have access to more impressive gadgetry (links below), but much of that is still barely out of the remote control phase.

Robotic pool cleaners, lawn mowers, window washers and gutter cleaners all help with chores, but none of them can play checkers with you.  Some robot companions will converse with you – after a fashion, and some of the kids bots are entertaining in their antics – but are limited in their scope.

Robotic devices have proven quite helpful (better than human physical therapists in fact) in helping people recover from stroke and other physical damage.  Several robots have proven quite effective in dealing with autistic children. Maja Mataric, co-director of the Robotics Research Lab at USC, told, “There was already anecdotal evidence that children with autism often respond favorably to robots and show social behaviors they do not display with unfamiliar people.”

Industrial robots are available that handle cleaning and material moving like picking goods from a warehouse and delivering them to a fulfillment center for shipping[5] or the Sun Micro Systems back-up tape library for large IT departments.  The tapes are stored in in the walls of the unit. A robotic arm is in the center of the library. Servos control the arm which puts the tapes in the tape drives and moves them back for storage when the backup is complete.

Timberjack has developed a walking timber harvester.  This platform can be adapted for any heavy equipment use in rough terrain.  While an operator steers the vehicle and manages the attachments, the vehicle’s on-board computer handles the motion of the 6 legs and decides how best to attack the terrain.  And it is far less destructive than a piece of tracked or wheeled equipment.

Hubo is a walking robotic chair that promises disabled persons mobility similar to unimpaired persons in all terrain and situations (except perhaps low doorways).  All of these are intriguing, some are impressive, but we’re still no closer to a design that will fix dinner and bathe the kids.

Advanced robotics development in the United States is being done primarily by the military, and D.A.R.P.A. has turned out some impressive new tools for our troops. Most of these, however are not true robots in that they are not autonomous; they are operated by remote control via wireless links and on-board video cameras or are computerized targeting systems. Most, but not all: WIKIPEDIA does list a few that would qualify as genuine robots.

  • US Mechatronics has produced a working automated sentry gun and is currently developing it further for commercial and military use.
  • MIDARS, a four-wheeled robot outfitted with several cameras, radar, and possibly a firearm, that automatically performs random or preprogrammed patrols around a military base or other government installation. It alerts a human overseer when it detects movement in unauthorized areas, or other programmed conditions. The operator can then instruct the robot to ignore the event, or take over remote control to deal with an intruder, or to get better camera views of an emergency. The robot would also regularly scan radio frequency identification tags (RFID) placed on stored inventory as it passed and report any missing items.
  • Tactical Autonomous Combatant (TAC) units, described in Project Alpha study ‘Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human out of the Loop’
  • Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System is an experimental robotic weapons system being developed by the U.S. Army since 2005.[5][6] It consists of a remotely operated sniper rifle attached to an unmanned autonomous helicopter.[7] It is intended for use in urban combat or for several other missions requiring snipers.[8]
  • The “Mobile Autonomous Robot Software” research program was started in December 2003 by the Pentagon who purchased 15 Segways in an attempt to develop more advanced military robots.[9] The program was part of a $26 million Pentagon program to develop software for autonomous systems.[10]
  • In a push to turn the science fiction of exoskeletons – like the one used by Sigourney Weaver in Aliens – into a military reality and deliver the advantages of such technology to soldiers in combat environments, DARPA is funding a US $50 million project known as “Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation”.[11]  But these could also help Astronauts work in space and even help paraplegics lead a fairly normal life.

But you would not want ANY of these taking your kids to the park to play! So, does the USA stand a chance of holding its own in the field of household robotics? Are truly useful robots for your home something that may become a reality in our lifetime?  We will explore those questions and more in the next segment of this series.

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6 thoughts on “Robots as Servants: the Current Standing”

  1. My son Steve was fascinated by robots since he was a little boy. He would talk about the Robot Apocalypse, tongue in cheek, I hope, but he had a very dry and unusual sense of humor. I enjoyed hearing about robots and his cute robot Avatar remains on Facebook after Steve is gone. I wrote a book of short stories dedicated to him and all geeks. Some of the stories are about robots. Thanks for these posts, Douglas, he would have enjoyed them. I enjoy them, and hope to write more little sci-fi robot stories for Steve in the future.

    1. Sounds like I’d have enjoyed Steve’s sense of humor, Kenna. What a great way to create a memorial to someone.

  2. This post must have taken a lot of research, Allan. Thank you for that. Maybe we’ll continue to develop highly-skilled — and specialized — robots, designed for repetitive or dangerous tasks, rather than the nearly-human versions we see in movies and cartoons. I doubt we’ll ever pay to watch a robot soccer match.

    1. I suspect you’re right, Charles; that if the risk of broken bones and bloodshed are eliminated, the appeal will wane for many people. I’m working on the next installment now; what we should see rolling out in the next two or three decades. It is really amazing! And, given human natures tendency to turn everything into a weapon, kind of scary. But if we can restrain that, robotics offer some amazing benefits.

      Thanks for dropping in Charles!

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