Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Mar 4, 2004

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The ‘world robot declaration’ Slashdot, and Hollywood
The International Robot Fair was held late last month in Japan. While it’s hard for an English-speaker to figure out what went on from their website, and there are no pictures posted yet, there was an English declaration of intent.

Looking at this we realize just how different the Japanese concept of robots is from the US. Sure, people have discussed these very same points in the US. However, no US university or company (or trade show for that matter) would ever dare list the following:

Confident of the future development of robot technology and of the numerous contributions that robots will make to Humankind, this World Robot Declaration is issued on February 25, 2004 from Fukuoka, Japan.
I. Expectations for next-generation robots
1. Next-generation robots will be partners that coexist with human beings
2. Next-generation robots will assist human beings both physically and psychologically
3. Next-generation robots will contribute to the realisation of a safe and peaceful society

II. Toward the creation of new markets through next-generation robot technology
1. Resolution of technical issues through the effective use of Special Zones for Robot Development and Test
2. Promotion of public acceptability of robots through the establishment of standards and upgrading of the environment
3. Stimulation of adoption through promotion of introduction of robots by public organisations
4. Dissemination of new technologies related to robots
5. Promotion of the development of robot technology by small enterprises, and their entry into the robot business. The government and academia shall provide active support for such efforts.

Meanwhile, in the US we get excited by lame Macromedia Flash movies on the “I, Robot” movie website. Aside from the overhyped graphics (do we really need menus that bounce around like ping-pong balls?) the whole intent of the site is to make you nervous about robots – as if we weren’t already in the U.S. It’s also fantasy – because we can’t make robots as sophisticated as the Nuvo.

If there was any U.S. based website where one might find something comparable to the “world robot declaration?” Yup. A page designed to make you uneasy on the “I, Robot” website. It could only be produced as a scare factor, not a serious set of goals. Ohmygododohmygod! What if they aren’t safe? Hollywood bites the big one, probably adapting some of the “Caves of Steel” era Asimov stories for this one. The final insult: they don’t even call them Asimov’s Three Laws – they’re Lansing’s Three Laws. Interestingly, though the robot on the website appears to use pneumatic muscles like the Shadow Robot

Slashdot Garbage – as usual, Slashdot (which is loaded with programmers) is blasting the latest robot from Japan – a small robot from ZMP (of Morph 3 fame) called the Nuvo. While the features appear deliberately limited (no functional arms) it may have a niche, like Sony’s QURO, as a home security robot that can walk around and snoop in every corner. Pretty amazing,if you ask me – but look at the ignorant drek in the Slashdot article. One idiot programmer opines that nothing will come of robots until they are “open source” – apparently unaware that ZMP produced the PINO, which is an open source robot. Others compare the Nuvo to women in clubs – just in case we needed to be reminded what mysogynist tube-steaks many U.S. programmers are. Can’t wait to see these boys lose their jobs to India – hopefully by that cute Indian female programmer in Business Week magazine.

Finally, several chumps on Slashdot opine that a robot isn’t any good until it can pick up the trash, burp baby, etc. Hmmmm. Were the first personal computers like the Apple II all that useful? Not really – they couldn’t even generate lower-case characters. But they came with some fun games and let you program. Imagine a Slashdotter circa 1979 saying that “no personal computer will be useful until we they can run a complete suite of office tools that any business-beast can operate”. It took quite a while for this to happen – but personal computers sold like mad. While I wish the US was doing more in robots, it is going to be fun to see slashdotters swept into the dustbin of history.

// posted by Pete @ 5:58 AM

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Sony sells its QURO robot, “Trabant” Robots in the US
A recent article in Japan Times says that Sony will begin selling its QURO robot by the end of 2004. The robot will be able to walk around the house with a camera and check things out, recognize faces and words, walk, run, and get up from a fall. This shows the big difference between commercial and purely academic research – at MIT they’re using converted Segways (a commercial product) to create a wheeled robot which someday will be able to open doors. Hmmmm.

This brings up the advantage of DARPA’s Grand Challenge. For 20, even 30 years MIT and CMU have been building robots – so much so that MIT has opened a historical robot museum. Decades of work, but no working robots. What do I mean. Nothing with the reliability, dexterity and intelligence to be sold into homes. How did this happen?

And now, in one short year we’ve seen 20+ groups produce robots that show every indication of being better than any robot produced at MIT or CMU, ever. The CMU “Red Team” Sandstorm robo-car is miles ahead of anything produced at that university. And Red Team is running scared – there are dozens of groups who claim they will make even better robots in their garage.

What’s the secret? Competition.

I think that (unfortunately) the robots in the MIT museum were all “Trabant” robots. For hose of you who don’t remember when East Europe was communist, the Trabant was a comical joke of a car produced in East Germany, a 3-cylinder, two-stroke engined rattletrap that had to be pushed up hills. Despite its small size, the fumes from the engine were dozens of times worse than the biggest Hummer today. This was a car in name only. After the Berlin Wall fell, the Trabant was swept into the dustbin of history in just a couple of years.

Why was the “Trabant” car so bad? Lack of competition. In East Germany (unlike “communist” China today) there was no competition. A single group designed the car. It has no competition, since the state controlled everything. The car didn’t have to satisfy anything other than the specs put down by committee. With no competition, it doesn’t improved.

I think the same thing happened during the “long winter” of robotics during the 1980s and 1990s. Robots were only made when a government organization (like DARPA) asked for them. Otherwise, they were grad student projects. In neither case did they actually have to “be” robots – they were robots in name only. How else to explain the MIT Leg Lab’s “biped” robot making the cover of Wired magazine when it wasn’t able to walk? In the meantime, the Asimo was already stomping up and down stairs. The pooh-poohing of Japanese robots by these groups is strangely like the way the East German government derided the cars produced by “degenerate capitalist nations” – cars that blew the Trabant out of the water like a wood chip.

So…it is great that DARPA has created the Grand Challenge. In one year we have robots that were deemed impossible – and they’re coming from garages instead of government labs. The heavy-hitting Sandstorm from CMU may win the Grand Challenge – it is an awesome robot – but it will be because it will (finally) have a bunch of little, grassroots robots nipping at its heels.


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