Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Jan 12-14, 2004

Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Japan Trade Ministry makes robots new “core industry” in 2005
A recent announcement by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Aichi in Japan shows just how serious the government is getting about robots sparking the next big tech boom. in an article in Asahi Times entitled Robots out to create core industry, the Ministry plans to fund up to 50 robots at the March 2005 World Exposition, with three cities in the Aichi prefecture.The goal:

“…grow robotics into one of the nation’s key industries, alongside such pillars as automobiles. A total of 3.1 billion yen has been earmarked in the fiscal 2004 budget bills for the project. A total of 3.1 billion yen has been earmarked in the fiscal 2004 budget bills for the project.

In February, the ministry will solicit participants for the exposition’s verification tests. The ministry will shoulder half the research and development costs of participants and finance all costs necessary to assemble robots used in the demonstration.

According to plan, eight robots will be used to guide visitors and patrol the site at night, nine will compose a janitorial crew, 15 will communicate with children at nursery facilities and 20 wheelchair robots will carry physically disabled visitors.

To ensure safety, each robot will be accompanied by an official, but in principle, the robots will move freely.

The ministry expects visitors to see robots play with children, answer questions by foreign guests in English and Chinese and collect trash.

During an initial six-month demonstration, the ministry and manufacturers will verify the safety and durability of the robots. The ministry will require manufacturers to make improvements based on the test data within one year. ”

In other words, there will be a serious attempt – estimated to draw 15 million visitors – into a showcase for Japanese robotics (non-industrial) as a real industry rather than a publicity tool. One can even see specialization or differentiation between several Japanese companies in the kinds of robots they will display:

  • Epson – small robots, like the micro-flyer demonstrated recently.
  • Toyota – a large, humanoid robot able to perform “workman” functions by 2005 (when the show will be held).
  • Honda – a large, humanoid robot currently being used for promotion, but later destined for healthcare and retirement communities
  • Sony – small, highly dexterous humanoid and animal-oid robots which will be used for entertainment, but later possibly as a companion for a small child
  • Tmusk – large “mechas” used for rescue work, like the recently introduced Enryu
  • General Robotix – Humanoid HRP, probably more software than hardware
  • NEC– also software-based, meant for home interaction, probably farmed out to other companiesThere’s an interesting aside in this article relating to verifying the safety of the robots:

    “…However, a major obstacle involves legal restrictions imposed by the Road Traffic Law and other laws that prevent robot manufacturers from conducting long-term tests to verify the safety and durability of their products. To overcome that problem, the ministry proposed that the Japan Association for the 2005 World Exposition design part of the exposition site for robot testing. The organizer of the exposition agreed, expecting the test demonstration to be a major attraction of the event, which is estimated to draw about 15 million visitors.”

    Compare this to the reaction in many US cities to the Segway “personal mover,” (which is being used as the base for robots by several research groups in the US, by the way). City after city restricted or banned the mover – despite the fact that huge numbers of people ride more primitive scooters and motorized and unmotorized skateboards. The reasoning tha came out of the city governments was usually along the lines that “people walking is better and more holistic.” In other words, the proposal was ducked because of potential lawsuits and candy-coated with some old-hippie slogans.

    This is a great example of the differences between Japan and the US with respect to technology at the moment. In earlier posts I suggested that circa 2015 we’d have robots walking off container ships in Long Beach, CA while Silicon Valley was still debating whether the PC is “dead.” Now I wonder – maybe they’ll be banned because God or the Great Spirit or the Earth Mother didn’t intendent machines to walk.

    Keeping robots out of US trade shows and cities will be a party for at least two of the four major US generations. We’ll see some Boomers (42-60) drag up old Big Brother stories and invoke doomsday stories like the Terminator. And we’ll see Xers (21-41) drag out a raft of X-file conspiracy theories. Even now, postings on sites like Slashdot often mention that DARPA or some other shadowy organization has had a secret conspiracy to build robots. Hey, wasn’t that the plot of Terminator 3?

    The other reaction of some Xers (probably bogus PC programmers) is to laugh and poke fun at the idea, or make an utterly cynical statement about its value – fitting with the overall generational archetype. In my opinion, this is a bit like whistling in the graveyard – a new industry looks like it might take over, so it is immediately attacked as trivial. The slashdot posters think that, Linux programming will be the most important issue in technology for ever for ever (yawn) !

    BTW, keep in mind that my “generational” comments concern the aggregrate behavior of huge (100,000+) numbers of people in certain age ranges. Generational “archetypes” don’t predict individual behavior at all. In the words of the Terminator, “Eeets, nothing personal.” But generations do tell us something about how entire cities, states, and countries react to events.

    It will be interesting to see if these attitudes change over the next decade. The post X/Y “Millennial” generation (0-20) has played with robots via Lego Mindstorms and NASA’s FIRST robotics competition, and they slurp up Japanese animation (with a much more balanced view of robots than US Frankenstein movies) like there’s no tomorrow. It is possible that as the younger Millennials mature, they will bring a more pro-robot attitude to the culture, and will be able to see them as assets rather than the source of lawsuits or dark agents of yet another X-Files conspiracy.

    If this is case, we may see the day when a robot exposition is supported by local and municipal governments.

Monday, January 12, 2004
Robots are the next “user interface”
This month is the 20th anniversary of the famous “1984” commercial which launched the Apple Macintosh, and the first time consumers were able to use a computer with a graphical desktop metaphor. This change in computer interfaces from a command-line, text-oriented format was a watershed event – today, virtually all consumer-oriented computers with screens bigger than a thumbnail use a variant of the “desktop metaphor” first seen in the 1984 Mac. Remarkably, the desktop of the 1984 Mac looks similar to the 2004 Mac, and currently is even more similar to the 2004 Windows XP interface. If a Mac-using time traveler jumped here today from 1984 they would have little trouble using today’s computers.However, in recent years, the “desktop” metaphor has become strained. The first problem is the sheer number of files on PCs today. The original Mac had at most a few dozen files (including the operating system) stored on a single 400k floppy. Today, typical home computers have upwards of 20,000 files on their hard disk. Using the desktop metaphor of file and folder icons becomes fairly difficult in the face of such complexity.

A second, more subtle problem has emerged in the similarity of the virtual desktop to a real one. Some items on the computer desktop work similarly to the real world, the “trash” icon being the best example. Other items work very differently – for example, files typically duplicate themselves when copied across disks, rather than actually moving like a real-world object.

A final problem with the desktop metaphor concerns the sheer number of programs used today. Most users have to work with dozens of programs, each with its own complex and often counterintuitive configuration section. In the case of an “integrated” software package like Microsoft Office, the individual programs are so complex that the menus automatically truncate to reduce the bewildering array of choices. This is the equivalent of a desktop with dozens of tools, each which much be learned individually.

Faced with these problems, there has been much work concerning the “next computer interface.” Some groups have proposed abandoning the file/folder concept in favor of a search engine model, similar to web browsing. Other groups – with limited success – have proposed “smart” desktops that progressively adapt to the user’s preferences. Interesting as these ideas are, nothing has appeared to seriously challenge the virtual desktop. This is even true for small handheld computers with tiny screens, which often place ultra-tiny icons onscreen demanding 20-20 vision. Is this a problem? More than a few designers say we just have to get used to it – the Mac-style desktop is here to day.

However, I have a very different take on this. The next user interface won’t be remotely like the Mac, or any of the other interfaces proposed. All of these ideas share a common limitation – they are virtual. No matter what the interface is in detail, in general all of them create some sort of virtual world inside the computer. In order to use the computer we have to enter this virtual world and learn its rules. With this basic common thread, it is highly that any “next user interface” would be much better than a 1984 Mac.

The real shift in user interfaces will be moving them out of the virtual. Once we interact with computers in our world the task of getting them to do what we want becomes easier and more natural. Instead of learning the rules of yet another virtual silicon kingdom we force the machines to deal with us.

And a machine that tries to interact with our world is a pretty good definition for a robot. A limited form of this would be a “smart” phone that was aware of its environment, e.g., whether it was in somebody’s hand or their pocket. A more advanced example is a mobile robot which can interact with us in our world and perform tasks in the same (real) world. In this case, the virtual is reduced in importance and becomes primarily a communication system connecting the real world closer to itself – instead of spinning new virtual worlds.

It is my belief that people will vastly prefer the “robotic” method of communicating – so much so that ultimately “cyberspace” will acquire a bad name and future generations will wonder how would could have possibly believed in such a thing – they will think we though spirits and spooks inhabited our machines.

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