Stepping up/Moving Forward...
June 3, 2013
First, via adafruit (who has apparently bought an Italian URL so that they can shrink urls using "adafru.it") I read a great think piece today by Leila Takayama at MIT Technology Review about what it means for a robot to be human friendly. A few quotes:
"A more important objective, to my mind, is making robots more human-friendly in their form, behavior, and function. By this I mean that robots should be appealing and approachable. They should behave in ways that are easy for humans to interpret, and they should perform functions that meet human needs."
"Finally, these human-friendly robots must meet real human needs, not only the needs of their inventors. Fetch-a-beer and fold-a-towel demos are nice scientific steps toward building more general robotic capabilities. But what we need now is for human-centered-design researchers and product-minded entrepreneurs to do the dance of the necessary and the possible with the robotics community."
Takayama goes on to lament that most of the Robots deployed to human environments are a temporary fixture so far, and that the real challenges aren't so much in making robots "social" as they are in making them compatible to humans and human environments. That may mean designs that don't fit in with our preconceptions about what a robot should look like or do.
If I can dip into the world of fiction for a moment, specifically poorly adapted screen sci-fi, the Will Smith version of "I, Robot" (which had almost nothing in common with the Asimov book of course) demonstrated mostly by feel the problem here. The Robots that were introduced into the home environment seemed almost to present more of a problem than a solution to anything just by their presence, and that was before the main hell broke lose. They took up as much space as another human would, they did piddly little tasks that really didn't save much time, they annoyed their owners. I don't know if it was the film-maker's intention to present them that way, but he/she certainly stumbled on a problem that may have to be faced:the problem with using robots to replace humans in day to day tasks is the replacement of humans in day to day tasks may not be as fun as we think. Okay, way off on a tangent...
For robots to really take hold in the world in a useful way, they really have to be doing something necessary and useful. They also shouldn't be terribly obtrusive. You probably need to be able to shove it in the closet most of the time. Chances are there won't be one all-purpose "maid" or "butler" robot-your refrigerator isn't your laundry unit, after all. Chances are the transformative robotic product won't be a half-million dollar PR2 coming into your home, nor will it be something that evolves out of the Roomba. But, slowly it will become obvious that every household can experience benefits from two or three mobile specialized computers with sensors and actuators of some kind.
Or maybe not slowly.
A while ago in a thread that was, if I remember right, dedicated to the BeagleBone Black, someone (bdk6, merser or mogul maybe?) said we needed to "step it up" when it came to what we were doing with robots, and that struck me as being very true. I've always been most interested in building robots that serve a useful purpose. It's harder to do than it sounds, but not beyond what most of us who have been around LMR for longer than it takes to figure out why their line-follower isn't working are capable of.
We are a very talented group, and together we push evolution. I'd like to see us make that a little more concrete of an assertion is what I'm saying here, I guess. Baby steps are just that, but we've already taken most of them-how many variations on sumo-bots and hexapods can we build and where do they get us? We know how to manipulate the technology, it's time to start making it work for us as more than just amusement.
That's not to say I know what the next step is. Certainly my household chores are limited-"lawn bots" are commercially available (though more expensive than would be worth for my lawn) and a laundry folding robot is years out in terms of price and utility. I can get my own beer (and let's face it, if you're an American you probably shouldn't be grousing about getting off your butt and burning the calories!)
So bounce it around in your head a little:what, in your home, would you like to automate? Where would a robot be useful and not just a toy? Do most of us even really have it so rough that it would be worth the space we'd give up for a minor convenience? Or will the home robots of the future even be mobile? Will they be arms recessed into the walls that come out like an ironing board when needed?
Personally, I'm a little ashamed to say that all I can come up with right now is that I wish I had a machine that could do my jogging and waking up in the morning for me.