Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Dec 11, 2003

Thursday, December 11, 2003
The robot revolution will be televised
Among the hype of the kickoff of the Xmas season in the West, there were many interesting threads. First, we hear that a woman is trampled during a store rush, then we find out that she is a professional at this, and has repeatedly sued stores. We hear that buying is going great, then hear that it isn’t so great after all…that’s the way the “New Economy” crumbles.

But in this hype, one thing stood out on television – the first ads and stories featuring the new robo-vac consumer product. Robo-vacumms have been selling faster in 2003, and it looks like they are a “real” product. In doing so, they are advancing the entire field of household robots – and by extension “real” robots that make sense. Consider these two models for automated floor-cleaning.

1. PC/cyberspace model – Put a network throughout the house. Load software using the network and monitor the virtual house. Configure a device to move through the virutal house, vacumming as it goes. If you move a chair, re-configure your virtual house via PC software.

2. Robot model – Drop a robo-vac on the floor. Leave. Move a chair.

The recent Samsung robo-vac comes ever-closer to this ideal. It senses and maps its environment, can find its re-charger, and go right back to where it was working after a re-charge. This is true robotic technology. A PC interface is not necessary or even particularly relevant. It might be useful to be able to “log in” to the robo-vac and see what it was doing from your smartphone, but no need to “configure.”

Whew…

The TV ads concerning household robots confirm that there is a real, international market out there, and that growth in this area will continue. As the robo-version of Moore’s Law kicks in (doubling the number of sensors instead of CPU speed on a regular basis) we will move ever-closer to robots that jump. We’ll also move to more general-purpose robots. Current thinking still often treats general purpose robots as impractical, just like selling a general-purpose PC seemed like a joke in 1980.

But while we’re seeing robo-vacs (finally) instead of Terminators on TV, the revolution is still not televised here in the US. Science-oriented cable channels like Discovery and Tech TV have carried stories, but they tend to blend them (somehow) into the dominant Internet/cyberspace vision. To really kickstart consumer robots, the public needs to see more – lots more robots. An article on robots.net listed a photo gallery by Paul Baron of the 2003 International Robot Exposition in Tokyo. Too bad this wasn’t covered by Tech TV. During the summer, tens of thousands of people watched the RoboCup finals in Italy live – but we didn’t see anything here in the US, even on the tech channels.

It’s going to take a major break in media to push robotics. More Hollywood movies aren’t the answer, even if they have cute robots. The robots will be animated/CGI virtual creations, puppeted by human operators. They won’t act or look like the real thing. Besides, the 2003 box office is going to be well below the 2002 record, so maybe movies aren’t the place to promote anymore. Games have a similar problem – they’re a popular media form with people under 35, but they have virtual, impossible robots as their bread and butter.

So it is going to be television that makes us see the robots rising. Maybe what we need is a “robot channel” marathon similar to Discovery’s “Dinosaur Planet” series – extended coverage of real robots. Failing that, only live appearances will do. Honda’s Asimo is touring schools worldwide, but it will take many years for this to impact public consciousness.

Prehaps the key is a robot play. Imagine a story written to be performed by advanced robots, e.g., the Sony QURO. Make it short, dramatic, and (somehow) moving. Take the act on the road – not typical playhouses, but malls and other pop-culture meeting places. You’ll get your robot revolution then….

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