Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Dec 30, 2003

Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Sony has announced that they are creating a humanoid robot. According to the business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun , the unnamed new robot will be designed to help factory workers and provide assistance in nursing care and rescue operations (I bet it plays Robocup soccer as well). Toyota will announce details of the project in January and plans to unveil their robot at the 2005 World Exposition in Japan.

While Honda and Sony have said they are not considering selling their Asimo and QURO robots in the near future, the article said Tokyo plans to market its robot as a “workman” in factories, hospitals, and nursing care facilities.

Toyota plans to develop advanced sensors (motion, sound) for the robot – and then apply it to their automobiles as a device to avoid collisions. Again, sensor technology (instead of cool cyberspace displays) is key – and Toyota plans to apply the technology developed for the robot to its future (can we say robotic) cars. Remember the self-parking car Toyota demostrated earlier this year? Obviously, Toyota is looking ahead to self-driving cars (possibly using GPS to navigate) as well.

To develop the robot, Toyota will work with Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp., a major maker of bearings and precision tools, and Yasukawa Electric Corp., a medium-sized electric motor maker. This farming out of technical work shows that mass-producing high-reliability robot bodies is rapidly becoming a do-able thing for manufacturers – I’m reminded of the Russian New Era humanoid robots released last summer. Worldwide, there is rapid convergence on first-generation robot bodies, replacing the “one-off” tangles of grad-school homebrew we’ve seen for the last 40 years.

Unlike Honda and Sony, Toyota says they will market their robots for factory work in just a couple of years. What’s the likelihood that Honda and Sony won’t follow suit, and shift their own projects to fast-track commercialization as well?

The race is on. I predict that all three companies will have commercialized their humanoid robots by 2008. As humanoid robots move to reality, we’ll see the old “Japan, Inc.” model come into play – the companies will exchange know-how between each other (Honda’s walking experience, NEC’s language translators, Sony’s behavior-based systems created for the Aibo) and apply the huge amount of Japanese-based university research into robots (e.g. Waseda robots, the Sig receptionist project).

About the time that MIT can keep Caldea from falling off its Segway mount, the Japanese humanoids will be able to walk over and pick it up.

The robot race has begun, and the US is out of it. An article over on ExtremeTech by Jim Louderback today included Sony’s Aibo among the “tech flops of tomorrow.” X-trem Xer that he is, Louderback assumes that Sony is creating the Aibo in order to make “the next Playstation.” Hmmm, I suspect that Louderback is too young to remember people making fun of the “Pong” video game in the 1970s! Console gaming became a major industry during the late lammented 1982-2000 Gen-X tech boom and in the future (along with Gen-X culture) will be replaced by online games and (of course) personal robots that jump.

Sony is aiming bigger – much bigger – than another Playstation by producing Aibo.

With our Xers firmly locked on the last great technology, our only hope is projects aimed at the post-Xer “Millennial” generation like the ‘Personal Exploration Robots’ being co-developed by NASA Ames, CMU, and other sponsors (e.g. Intel). This project will put mini-Mars rovers similar to the Pathfinder of several years ago into the hands of kids and allow them to explore simulated “Mars yards”. At least someone in the US knows what’s up! In the words of Daniel Clancy, director of information sciences and technology at NASA Ames:

“The Personal Exploration Rover is part of a larger project to develop low-cost robotic devices that can be used in education, science museums and the home…In future holiday seasons, you will be able to bring one of these home for your kids. The robot will be able to move around your house, take pictures, interact with your dog, and do other tasks. It’s really about the whole creative process and exploring how you can program a device to do interesting tasks”

These robots are aimed at kids, but frankly, I don’t see much difference in complexity between them and a Lego Mindstorms robot, Battlebot or even a remote-controlled, battery powered car under the 2003 Xmas tree. Unlike Mindstorms, the kids won’t even learn how to build these robots – they’ll just drive it around under control. Everything the PER is supposed to do is already done with by the Sony Aibo, NEC PaPeo, and other non-US personal robots. But CMU, NASA and Ames get an “A” for effort while the X-treme US tech industry gets an “F.”

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