Ever since science fiction took over the minds of inventors and the world at large, we have been yearning to create that perfect robot who would be our best friend, maid, pet, driver, vacuum cleaner… a veritable all-in-one that would rid us of having to do our daily chores, and not ask for leave either!
How close are we to this becoming a reality? Going by recent inventions and developments, not too far… robots are already beginning to walk, talk and yes, in some cases, even think like people.
Back in 1996, along with partner Yoshihiro Kuroki, Tatsuzo Ishida, Sony Corp's ace robotics engineer suggested the creation of a new species of humanoid entertainment bots along the lines of C-3PO, the golden chatterbox in Star Wars. Creating robotic workers for factories is one thing, but the technical challenge of creating something like a humanoid is tremendous.
And what about the potential hazards that such a creature could pose? Until these creatures are smart enough to 'understand' what it's like to walk, they could just trip over and fall, injuring someone in their path and bring lawsuits against Sony in their wake!
Sony, though, decided to go in for the idea anyway. Thus was born the SDR or Sony Dream Robot. At a time when the world was gaping over Aibo, Sony's cute robotic puppy, Ishida and Kuroki were displaying half-a-dozen prototype humanoids at Yokohama at Robodex, an expo for personal robots.
That was 2001. Since then, there hasn't been much progress-and developers in labs around the world are still struggling to build bots that are spitting images of humans in movement and possibly behaviour. But when will they be ready? Will we, in our lifetime, ever be able to summon someone like Rosie-the robot maid from The Jetsons?
Rough estimates based on developments indicate that 2010 could well be the year when robots walk the street. Considering that's just five years away, it does seem rather impossible. They were also saying back in the '60s that everyone would fly by 2000 and that cars would be obsolete!
But what is it that we are looking to create here? Is a lump of wires and metal that vaguely resembles the human form the final objective? Not quite. Researchers around the world have since long achieved the human form-bipedal (two-footed) movement included-and work is now focused more on making these bots behave more like humans and understand what we are saying. Artificial Intelligence (or in fact, the lack of it) has been the stumbling block.
Coming Of Age
There are several things that differentiate humans from relatively simple creatures such as lizards, cockroaches and so on. Consider our sense of sight and our emotions.
Cockroach-like robots are relatively easy to build. But it's a tremendous challenge to create a bot that even vaguely resembles a human in the departments that matter. For instance, how do we imbue a robot with the emotion of fear? And how do we enable it to distinguish between a living and a non-living thing-something even a child can do when it is a year old?
Humans have normally overcome most of the challenges they have faced-and successfully built skyscrapers and supercomputers, and have even put men on the moon. But getting a robot to smell something, feel and identify, touch, see and imbue motor skills similar to humans is a task that is comparable only to the creation of a whole new world.
But why are emotions for a robot so important? Simply because for robots to be meaningful companions, they must be 'socially savvy'. At the MIT's Media Labs, work is being done on 'Kismet' (see box below), who is learning to recognise human emotions-and also has a face to express its own moods.
The image of a genie that has long been imbibed into the human psyche makes us want something-or someone-who can do more than us in terms of memory and mental and physical skills. Is a robot companion the answer?
The industrial world wants robots for work in hazardous surroundings; the military, to fight on the battlefield. But one place most humans would want them is in their homes. Why? For doing mundane, daily tasks like cleaning the house, washing clothes and cleaning the dishes. Driving you to work and shopping for groceries would figure next on the list, and an added bonus would be if they could tutor the kids after school. That's the ideal home AIO (all-in-one).
That's your genie right there, but given the state of AI and the current expertise in this field, getting your dream bot home may take some time. As of right now, they are prone to mistakes and a lot of them. But wouldn't that make them that much more human? Yes, but that's not what we're looking for, is it?
Growing Up Botty
MIT Labs had two humanoid robots to its credit. Unfortunately, both have retired and are now part of the MIT's Museum. During their 10-year lifecycle, these robots successfully mimicked emotions, and showed that it was possible to really 'grow up a bot'.
None of today's robots can do any of the household chores we would want them to. They can't even pick up a broom! But the next generation that is being created-in the shapes of animals-could well be more capable. There is a good chance that an Aibo could be sitting at your door, at guard in the night after a hard day's work inside the house.
As humans, we always have great expectations from our friends, families and ourselves. But will our robot friend understand it? To be honest, it's best if they didn't. So long as they just did what is asked of them, we'll be happy!
And no, this is not fantasy. Already, some toy-like robots are reminding the elderly to take medicine and keep appointments. And future plans call for bundling more advanced mechanisms into roving maids and butlers.
Ah… a butler that will be at hand for your whims and fancies. While most inventors maintain that robots are 'almost intelligent', the question is, will there be a time when they could be more intelligent than us? And this question wakes the doomsday soothsayers from their slumber. But they can rest easy for a while as inventors and creators of the modern day maids and butlers are still worrying about issues like movement and response times.
Hollywood has already done its bit to scare us out of our wits by depicting robots as evil beings whose only purpose of existence is to take over the earth. One question: why? What on earth might push them to take over? Is it the fact that they no longer want to be ruled and want to be masters of their own destiny? But that would mean they are able to think and understand emotions and have aspirations. Unfortunately, that's happening only in Hollywood.
When Can You Buy One?
Your dreams of having a butler and/or a maid scooting around the house may not be fulfilled this decade, but some of the early developed bots are functioning as guards, delivering hospital food trays and carrying documents from one office to another.
The Japan Robot Association (JRA) had estimated that by 2002, nearly 11,000 service robots would have been deployed, 65 per cent of them in hospitals and nursing homes. JRA projected that by 2005, healthcare robots would be a $250 million market, which would then hit $1 billion by 2010-approaching 10 per cent of the total market that year. As for personal bots, a panel of industry and academic experts predicted they will be as common as PCs and cell phones within 10 to 15 years. You could finally draw a bath that's exactly 29.4o C every day!
Growing Up A Bot
Aibo, Asimo, Robosapien and any of the other similar bots have one thing missing when compared to Rosie. They do not have a character of their own.
Bots like Aibo can learn tricks and respond to voice commands, and are touted to be the next big thing, but what good are a few tricks when you want the whole circus?
While researchers everywhere are fascinated by the potential of home robots and cyber-companions, there are labs that are counting on biological approaches to help produce mechanical beings-known as evolutionary robotics.
The basic idea of evolutionary robotics is to be able to raise a machine like a child, letting it learn from its own experiences and sensory impressions, rather than feeding it canned software written by humans. Leading places for such research include the University of Sussex in Britain, Switzerland's University of Lausanne, and the MIT and Michigan State University in the US.
MIT's Cog and Kismet are probably the most famous of the self-educated bots. But no matter how personable the Cog may seem, a robot with human-level intelligence still remains a faraway dream.
For true versatility, robots need to be mobile. Robot companions must be able walk on two legs. And this is still an engineering challenge. Bipedal movement is essentially a continuous, controlled fall that's avoided only by precisely timing each step.
Humans do it without thinking, so it seems simple. But the fact is, it takes a fabulous amount of computational horsepower just to prevent a two-footed, walking bot from falling. Early mobile robots had to drag a cable connecting them to a fairly big computer-which meant limited mobility.
A lot of the focus in robotics now is on creating bots that walk like humans without help. And a lot of this behaviour-including walking-is learned by the robot, instead of being hardcoded. It may seem that hardcoding the behaviour is simpler, but it's not: it's easier to program robots so they learn by themselves.
According to some sources, computing power increases a thousandfold every 15 years. If this is the case and if the trend continues it's only a matter of time before even little metal pets like the Aibo become intelligent. Still, many experts believe truly smart robots are inevitable, given the ever-growing power of computer chips. One hopes so.
Despite all the advances and inventions in robotics, one unanimous feeling is that the future of robots is at home. That is, home robots; your maid or butler. These creatures would be expected to wake you up and have your morning cuppa ready, draw your bath, iron your clothes, make your breakfast, clean the house, probably read you your newspaper, make your lunch… the list continues.
But our existing technology may prove restrictive, and while work continues in this field, there is a certain amount of scepticism that has to be countered before intelligent robots can really become a part of mainstream life.
There are, for example, reasons to believe that research in the US is not as extensive as in Japan thanks to Hollywood's depiction of robots as evil beings. In Japan, though, robots have been widely shown as helpers and may hence just be accepted more easily. But what about the rest of the world? Being fed off Hollywood may even mar the widespread use of robots elsewhere.
Some interesting research from the creators of the Roomba has shown that more than anything else, people want to know if the robot can 'clean their floors'. The second most wanted feature humans want in a robot is the ability to wash clothes. Roomba seems to have fulfilled the first desire. Time to wait and watch how long before the next is fulfilled.
Can I Afford One?
US, Europe and Japan notwithstanding, can the rest of the world afford a robot even if they became reality? Developers and manufacturers predict that the prices of these household helpers may not exceed those of a high-end laptop. Say around $1,000 (Rs 45,000). In which case, your dream bot may just be reality. Start saving! .
|The Evolution Chart|
Researchers in corporate and academic labs are racing to develop working models that, within a few years, may become our cohabitants and co-workers. The leaders include companies such as Matsushita Electric Industrial, NEC, Sony and Omron and are literally investing millions in the development of personal robots. Here are some bots that have so far seen light of they day: