Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Mar 24, 2004

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Sony’s Intelligent, Remote-Control QURO
An article on asahi.com describes Sony’s new project for its running and ball-throwing QURO. Sony Executive Vice President Toshitada Doi (who headed the Aibo project) will be running the Life Dynamics Laboratory with 10-20 researchers who will be allowed to test the latest theories in artificial intelligence.

The plan calls for getting past the current problem with robots that jump: their brains are too limited. Power requirements and historical precedent in embedded devices has limited mobile robots to processors running 1/20 the speed of a fast consumer PC. In such a limited environment, comparable to desktop PCs in 1994, it is difficult to produce advanced behavior – just getting the QURO to walk with such limited brainpower was a mind boggling achievement.

To solve the problem, more than 100 high-performance PCs will be linked into a parallel computing network to analyze sensory data coming from a QURO body and direct its actions. This is a 1000-fold increase in the processing power available to this robot. Sony hopes that by applying the latest theories of brain research the remote-brained QURO will show autonomous and “intellectual” behavior.

Good luck to these guys. The choice of the QURO is inspired, since it is arguably the most advanced humanoid robot body out there. But I hope the “modifications” mentioned in the article add more sensors to the body than the 60 or so currently present, enough so that the augmented QURO has the sensation of a simple insect, which has thousands of touch sensors. Without the extra sensation, the remote brain will have the same problems controlling the QURO body that human operators have controlling the Predator unpiloted aircraft – in other words, extremely difficult. Predator pilots find control incredibly demanding, partly because so little sensory feedback comes back to them in their remote location from the aircraft.

// posted by Pete @ 6:49 PM

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Robots – let’s take back our good name
It’s pretty clear to most people in personal, service, and entertainment (even industrial) robotics that the robotics industry is on a roll. Sales of robo-vacs and entertainment robots (e.g. Sony’s Aibo) are going great guns, and recent events like the Robo-Olympics are causing “convergence” of the battle-robot and autonomous robot worlds. Despite the weak showing of auto-robots in the DARPA Grand Challenge, it is clear that cars will be “robotic” in just a few years. Honda, Sony and now Toyota all have created and demonstrated advanced humanoid robots. The robots are truly rising. In short, robots are fast moving from fantasy characters in movie CG animations to real-world creatures we interact with in our daily lives.

Now that we’re real, it is time to take back our good name from those who have hijacked it into cyberspace.

Recall that the point of many articles in this weblog is that a good definition of a robot is a machine that uses sensors to build a perception of the real world, and interact in it. Robots must have robust sensation of the natural environment (vision, hearing, radar/lidar senses, touch, chemical senses) to be of value. Robots are uninteresting if they can only interact in virtual environments, and become more interesting as they interact in less controlled environments. A robot working in a hospital is surrounded by artificial constructs which easily translate to symbols and doesn’t have to be too brainy. A robot in the desert is surrounded by a completely natural world without human constructs, and must deal entirely with raw sensory data instead of easily understood human symbols (e.g. stop signs). People interacting with robots do so largely via the “real world” – being seen by the robot, speaking to it using natural language, picking it up and putting it somewhere, and so on.

The alternate use of computers today is to create “cyberspace” – essentially the polar opposite of a robot. A computer creating “cyberspace” uses its power to bring a synthetic reality into being inside itself. People interacting with computers following the cyberspace model have to enter the machine’s world and abide by its rules. The cyberspace world is made up not of real “things” but of symbols for them. A computer game may create a “realistic” 3D character or a simple Space Invaders icon but at the bottom both are the same – they are a symbol for something rather than being something in themselves.

To summarize, cyberspace is a symbolic world created by a computer, while robots are computers attempting to enter our real world (Matrix nonwithstanding).

For this reason, “virtual” robots are not robots. A virtual robotic car might do quite well in a videogame simulation of driving, but fail miserably if confronted by a real-world robot. It’s cheating to call it a robot. Virtual game characters run and jump with ease – but the same software controlling the game character could not control a real-world humanoid body – it would fall over in an instant.

The same goes for the so-called software ‘bots that are supposed to monitor searching engines and report interesting content. These same ‘bots are utterly confused by natural language. They are working in cyberspace – a purely symbolic environment.

And…the same goes for software ‘bots pretending to be people in instant messaging systems. Studies show that ‘bots aimed at teens and tweens don’t fool kids. After a short conversation, the kids continue to interact with the ‘bot – but their intent is to pick it apart and expose its machine-ness. In effect, the ‘bot becomes a type of puzzle for them to solve. This is not a robot.

None of these things are robots. However, the tech media frequently calls them robots. Why? Because real robots are cool. By calling these cyberspace constructs robots, the cyberspace pundits steal some of robot coolness for their own pale simulated world.

It’s time to stop letting cyberspace rip off the excitement of robots. Real robots will be more exciting than anything cyberspace can generate. So let’s begin pointing that whe we talk abour robots we are not talking about ‘bots – we’re talking about the real thing. Insist in differentating your robotic creations from virtual ones – there’s no comparision.

At the same time, don’t feel that you have to “justify” a robot by linking it to cyberspace. Sure, a robot that can log into the web and read your email is interesting, even useful, but this is hardly a reason for having a robot. Television does not say it is just as good as radio – it is a different medium that doesn’t need to justify itself through another one. Likewise for robots – they’re interesting for the unique things they do, not for their ability to link to an older media.

Take back the name “robot.” Let cyberspace fend for itself – declare the true meaning of robots.

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