Home: Scrying: I Love Robots

I Love Robots

January 10, 2006

Rosie the RobotLast night, I was building robots for my son. I’ll admit, I don’t mind in the least—I love robots. I suppose, in part, my fascination goes back to childhood, when I wished for my own Rosie the Robot. That fascination endures today: while shopping for a new vacuum recently, I eyed the “Roomba“ (whose creator gracefully provided the title for this entry.)

I love robots (irobot corporation logo)

This well-known, bug-like robot vacuums your living room without you lifting a finger. It is almost a Rosie, but doesn’t offer quite the same stimulating personality. (For the record, the Roomba was a bit beyond my price range. I went with the old-fashioned-push-it-yourself Kenmore canister vacuum.) 

Coincidentally, as I was pondering the future of robots, this article appeared in my e-mail, from Scientific American. (They’ll send weekly news clips, if you ask.) Gibb’s review of DARPA’s 2005 Grand Challenge described how the U.S. military is inspiring new innovations in robotics—of the vehicular variety, if not the domestic type.

In 2004, a number of vehicles entered the race, but none crossed the finish line. That must have encouraged developers to get serious, because in 2005, competition became fierce.

“This time five autonomous vehicles crossed the finish line, four of them navigating the 132-mile course in well under the 10 hours required to be eligible for the cash prize.“  (Scientific American feature article)

DARPA Race: Starting linesSome great footage is available through DARPA’s site, including some video of the winning vehicle, Stanford’s pride and joy, Stanley. (Stanley is the blue volkswagen pulling up to the starting line in distance of this picture. How can you not love a VW?)

Gibbs also writes:

“More important than the race itself are the innovations that have been developed by Grand Challenge teams, including some whose robots failed to finish or even to qualify for the race. These inventions provide building blocks for a qualitatively new class of ground vehicles that can carry goods, plow fields, dig mines, haul dirt, explore distant worlds—and, yes, fight battles—with little or no human intervention.”

Wait… how about raking the leaves and weeding the garden? There is promise, as Gibbs describes some of the challenges in the race: 
“[T]he machines must plan and maneuver over a path that avoids obstructions yet stay on the trail, especially at high speed and on slippery terrain.”

This is important… Not only will this prevent the robotic cars from crashing into a tree, but gives promise to a robot that can maneuver between toys to clean a child’s bedroom.

On a more serious note, it certainly seems that these robots are becoming more “intelligent” with every race.

“Many teams equipped their robots with a combination of sensors. But only a few succeeded in building systems that could integrate the disparate perspectives to deduce a safe and fast path ahead—and do so many times a second.”

Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like our brains? Tomorrow I’ll post a paper discussing the feasibility of AI. While computers become more human, we are learning how our brains are more like computers. Stay tuned.

(Race photo courtesy of DARPA; Jetsons cell courtesy of VanEaton Galleries)