Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Is there an app for that robot? No.

I read with some amusement (tinged with irritation) the following report on “robots that can bring you a beer”, probably in response to the upcoming Superbowl:

The article considers a few robots that might be able to “bring you a beer”. First, it highlights the Asimo open a screw-top bottle – pretty cool, if it can actually do this for real, instead of in an industrial-robot style pattern.

The last part is more interesting. The article tells you how your smartphone can be even more useful than ever, if you stick it into a little robot body. What’s extraordinary is that the benefits of having a small, hobby-sized robot motoring around aren’t explained. There’s also no discussion of whether a cellphone is smart enough to create intelligent behavior.

But the last part goes right to the center of Robots That Jump. Part of my beef with the delusions of robotics – that we are about to create superhuman creatures that will revolt and enslave us – is the misunderstanding of computer power. There is also a misunderstanding of the power of individual programs. According to the article, to make your robot better in the future, you will just “download an app”.


The first reason web apps work is that the smartphone is a very standardized device, with a closed OS (yes, even Android) that is highly predictable in behavior. The second is that web apps are typically used for communication – extending the basic use of a cellphone – rather than number-crunching or creating intelligent actions. There’s a world of difference between making an app that allows people to share photos, and software than analyzes the same photo. True, apps like Shazam hit the cloud for pattern-recognition, but one wonders whether any “cloud” of computers could handle all the cellphones running intelligent software.

The delusion in this article is: Apps blew up the cellphone market. Now there is a way to make a cellphone run a robot body. Therefore, apps will blow up robotics.

This pop science article is far from the only place we’re seeing this idea. It is as if every time a new technology advance comes along, it will “finally” kick robotics into high gear.

The problem is, IMHO that we know exactly what will kick robots into high gear – fluid motion, natural walks, movement in human spaces without modification, an ability to pick and hold objects without special techniques. No mind, just a robot that could do an aerobics class if it wished.

But our faith in Techna, the goddess that rewards us who believe in technology with ever-better apps is strong. Surely, when we are ready she will give us robot beer-bringers?

IMHO, a person starting out with robots is still doing better to use a simple microprocessor than program a beast like iOS. Apple’s Object-C libraries call for remembering long class names that put even German compound words to shame. Sensors are there, but limited. Brains are nonexistent, unless you hit the “cloud”. And valuable apps don’t think, they share.



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