Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – June 29-July 6, 2003

Thursday, July 03, 2003
A slew of interesting robot articles
A recent article on ctnow.com features the history of movie robots. Though the author rambles a bit, it does a good job of summarizing the typical use of robots as symbols for the dangers of technology. Robots typically appear as evil, with occasional good ones, and any real capabilities/limitations are not considered except in very rare cases like Star Trek’s Data. It appears that the author is not acquainted with the very different vision of robots in Japan.

Japan’s attitude to human-friendly robots is summarized by Dawn Matus in Hawaii Business Magazine. Inher article A robot in every home, she notes that Japan’s robot market, currently worth 400 billion yen, could grow to 3 trillion yen by 2010 and 8 trillion yen by 2025 according to Hisashi Namioka of the Japan Robot Association. She also quotes him as saying:

“Compared to people in the West, Japanese don’t worry that robots will steal their jobs, that they’re dangerous, or anything like that,” he says. “We seem to have a predisposition or temperament that allows us to accept robots without hesitation.”

This attitude is pretty clear when you consider the current success of the Terminator 3 movie. And outside the multiplex, robots are clearly the “dark horse” of technology, especially for those already in the computer/tech industry. This week, PC Week magazine put up a major article entitled The Future of Technology: 20 Trends to Watch.” Robots are the 20th item, ranking well below concepts like Microsoft SPOT. “Self-driving cars” are partway up the list, but we’re not talking robots – instead, the concept refers to linking the cars together in trains and treating roadways like computer networks.

In reading this extensive report I was reminded of a similar article I read in April 1994 in BYTE magazine concerning the future of the upcoming “information superhighway.” Despite the early growth of the web visible at the time, BYTE ranked the Internet near last place as a “dark horse” that was unlikely to be very significant in the future networked world. Instead, BYTE trumpeted the rise non-starters like interactive television (ITV) instead. Famous last words…

I wonder if the PC Week article will look similarly wrongheaded in 2013?

In the US, the place we’ll see robots will be in hospitals. The rapid aging of Baby Boomers, and the relatively small size of the Gen-X/Gen-Y group following means that there will be tremendous strain on healthcare circa 2020. The Millennial generation (born 1982-2001, children of Boomers and older Xers) is as large as the original Boomer generation, but they won’t reach their peak earning years until 2030 or later. Nurses, caretakers at retirement communities, and other professionals will be in extremely short supply. The solution? Robots, partly autonomous and partly operated by caregivers. There are a lot of non-jumping robot projects in the US focused on hospitals. A good example is the Companion announced by InTouch, a wheeled, tele-operated robot in many ways comparable to some of the hospital robots featured at Robodex 2003. The info on the InTouch website is fascinating:

“There is a demographic crisis in healthcare. Over the next 10 years the number of elderly age 85 and over will grow 38% doubling the number of seniors requiring healthcare support. Already today there are over 400,000 unfilled nursing positions causing hospitals across the country to close wings or risk negative outcomes. Over the coming years, the declining ratio of working age adults to elderly will further exacerbate the shortage. In 1950 there were 8 adults available to support each elder 65+, today the ratio is 5:1 and by 2020 the ratio will drop to 3 working age adults per elder person. Technology solutions which dramatically increase the effectiveness of healthcare professionals are required. ”

And you thought Social Security was going to be a problem! The InTouch system is nearly pure tele-operation, but it will be short work to advance the technology so the robot “knows” where it is in the hospital and can go from one place to another on its own as necessary. Later, hospital robots will be able to access information in the local database and pick up job assignments left there for them by the (small group of) human caretakers.

Bear in mind that the problem with population aging described by InTouch is much milder here in the US than in Europe and Japan. The US had a second “echo boom” creating a relatively large young Millennial generation whose oldest members are just entering college today. This didn’t happen in Europe and Japan, where fertility continued to fall through the 1980s and 1990s. Read the InTouch statement above and multiply the problem by 2-3 fold, and you’ve got the crisis awaiting Europe and Japan. At present, countries like Italy have birthrates running in the range of 0.7 per couple, so far below “replacement” that their the majority of their population will be in retirement in a few decades, with nearly no teens and young adults at all. Like it or not, those countries will be crawling with robots.

Finally, we salute the success of more real-world robots. First, the Theremin-playing robot at U Vandenberg’s Cognitive Science Lab. This old electronic instrument was used for “spacey” sounds in classic 1950s SF films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. How appropriate! The lab is also working on a hospital/elderly caregiver robot called IASC and a disembodied humanoid hand designed for similar purposes.

Second, Inc.com, formerly a breathless follower of the Internet/dotcom industry, has run a great article on iRobot’s business strategy in developing the Roomba robo-vac. The strategy was to make something that worked, rather than demonstrate coolness suitable for finishing one’s thesis. The result was 13 million in venture funding and a Good Housekeeping seal of approval! The article shows that it is not good enought to have Steve Jobs “insanely great” ideas – they must work in a mass-production environment (Apple has only 4% of the PC market, BTW).

“…small R&D shops that supply brand-name manufacturers rarely break out on their own — and for a reason. The shift iRobot had to make, from high-cost prototype design to every-penny-counts mass production, ‘is a hugely daunting transition,’ says Robert Bruner, executive director of the Batten Institute at University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. ‘If it’s not done well, it can lead to setbacks or even the demise of the company that bungles it.'”

The rest of the article provides a good guide to making robotic technology cheap enough for consumers (in the US at least) to buy. Marketing was equally important – in the US iRobot has been careful never to call the Roomba a robot in the initial advertising. Now, the company plans to gradually introduce the term. Hopefully it will be a success, and the visions of Terminator 3 will retreat to their deserved position — of wrongheaded fantasies of a would which will never be.

– posted by Pete @ 10:22 AM

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Three robot stories reveal national attitudes

Several recent media articles show the difference between the US perception of robots, and that found elsewhere.

Writing in Siliconvalley.com, columnist Mike Cassidy decrys the appearance of automated check-out at Home Depo and automated check-in at airport terminals. In his mind, this means he is about to be replaced by a robot. The article follows in the tradition of imagining a not-possible automated world while paying no attention to the real effects of automated checkout. The robot is nothing more than his ‘replacement’ – no analysis of what a robot actually is and does here! The same could be said for Terminator 3 – a movie that replays a plotline from 20 years ago with more sound and CGI effects. The lamment – and the impossibility of the envisioned world – are still intact.

In the U.K., a report on anova.com notes that Britain is sending two teams to the Robocup finals in Italy, the Bold Hearts from the University of Hertfordshire and the Essex Rovers from the University of Essex. This short article is careful to point out that RoboCup requires the machines to play ball on their own without Battlebot-style human control.

Finally, from East Malaysa, the Daily Express News notes a speech given at a regional robot soccer competition, Robofest 2003. In the speech, Assistant Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, Datuk Karim Bujang opined that switching from human power to robotics and automated technology can reduce the Government’s dependency on foreign workers. Fascinating…that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of robots used to combat the ‘guest worker’ problem! In another article from Japan, educator Hideki Kamoshida is interviewed about his unique ‘cram school’ called the Center for Robotics Educational Outreach, where students learn to build simple robots. Two schools have been opened, one in Tokyo, and one in Yokohama.

These three articles illustrate how differently we see robots in the US. Here they are essentially fantasy monsters that are part of Hollywood-scripted disutopian futures. Throughtout the tech industry, writers speculate on the “meaning” of robots or whether robots have a soul – ignoring the current capabilities of robots. Outside the US there seems more interest in their practical application, particularly in Asia. Our ‘California dreamin’ over robots will come back to haunt us during the next two decades as robots become real and practical. Most likely, we’ll be sitting inside a multiplex watching “Terminator XXX” while real robots are marching off the container ships.

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