Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Personal Robot Future Form Factor

An interesting article I found on robotic trends.

It highlights the major difference between the Japanese and American approach to personal robots [i.e. robots used for entertainment & service].

While the Japanese might prefer to have humanoid robots because they are reluctant to accept other people to perform certain tasks, Americans are much more ambivalent, even pragmatic. Â?Here robots must be cheaper than other solutions before we can accept that it can do some work,Â? Lewis suggests. Â?The exceptions are search and rescue and military robots, where robots can potentially save human lives.Â?

It is important to realize the costs involved here. A humanoid robot will undoubtedly be more expensive than, say, the Roomba, if only because of the great mechanical and processing power needed to make a biped run (err ... or even to make it walk).

But when you have a humanoid, they should be able to do many things you can do, because everything in your home is designed for a human. Think toilet bowl cleaners, upright-vacuums, dusters, handles, door knobs, stairs, etc. Joseph Engelberger said the same thing when he visited CMU to inaugurate the new Robot Hall of Fame

I think the main issue is market penetration. Humanoid robots probably can't be affordable until they are made en mass. Maybe some rental scheme would be sufficient, where you pay on the order of $500 a month for a robotic butler/jester/rent-a-cop, and constantly receive upgrades of new editions. Then the older generations could be rented out for less, and the oldest generations could be sold at a low price for academic experimentation or battle-bots. I'm thinking of a generation as 6 months to a year for new computer hardware and/or mechanical body, and monthly/weekly for software.

This might seem expensive, but it is like leasing an expensive car. The difference with this purchase, is that this is so much more than a status symbol: your house is secure and clean, and there is an entertainment robot for the whole family that is much more immersive than a television. Imagine the mulitpurpose functionality: you call your robot to the kitchen to bring up a recipe from the internet on its LCD-screen enhanced chest, and then the robot goes back to your toddler to play teletubbies.

All of this is extrapolation based on both the current cost (Asimo runs around $100,000) and performance (Asimo needs to be remotely controlled), and couldn't be achieved in less than 10 years.

UPDATE: Reader Abby comments:
" but englerbert was pointing out that there are many aspects of a human that we *do not* need to replicate for various functions - ie, walking and running for a nurse robot, for example. So, again the focus should be on saving human lives (or making their lives better) not on just obsession with mimicry or creation in our own form. The priority should be on FUNCTION not FORM. "

I should have specified that i was referring to his statement that robots should be able to use our current tools.

I think he is wrong about not needing legs. Sure, maybe in a nursing home, but think about an apartment with a stoop. Would you install those lifters on the stairs outside, as he suggests? Of course not! It is a needless roadblock to the full immersion of robots into the home.

Also, you should know as an pro in HCI that the form follows function when you are interacting with a social/entertainment robot, i.e. the most natural interaction will most likely come from something that looks most like a human.

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