Wanna join our online Wondaland book club? Check out the below article on robots, androids and the future.
May 27th 2010, 20:12 by N.V. | LOS ANGELES
IN HIS poignant tale of human empathy and compassion (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick explored the defining characteristics that distinguish human beings from sentient machines. The Kafkaesque account takes place in a dystopian future where runaway robots—so sophisticated they can pass all too readily as humans—have to be hunted down and “retired” before they can wreak havoc on what little is left of human society.
The futuristic setting for Dick’s masterpiece—published in 1968 and the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s subsequent film, “Blade Runner”—was supposed to be San Francisco in 1992, after nuclear conflagration had wiped out many species and destroyed much of the planet. Later editions of the classic sci-fi fable postponed the setting to 2021—largely because, in the real world, so little actual progress had been made in human-like automata.
Even forecasts published over the past decade have proved wildly optimistic. No less an authority than Hans Moravec, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, expected all-purpose robots to be widely available by 2010. Ray Kurzweil, a respected computer scientist, serial inventor and futurist, predicted that some 55m robots would be in circulation by 2010. Toyota confidently expected it would be selling robots to families and the elderly by 2010. All predictions made over the past decade about the use of personal robots have fallen well short.
Yet, something is stirring that gives pause for thought. Though a far cry from the Nexus-6 models of Dick’s prolific imagination, personal robots seem to be shrugging off their science-fiction trappings and becoming very much a technological reality. The past few weeks, in particular, have seen a sequence of events that could yet prove to be the tipping point that turned dextrous but limited industrial robots into handy helpmates around the home.
Writing in Scientific American in December 2006, Bill Gates pondered the parallels between the PC industry in its early days and the fledgling robotics industry today. He noted that robotics companies had no standard operating software that would let popular applications run on a variety of machines. There was practically no standardisation on the hardware side either. “Whenever somebody wants to build a new robot,” he wrote, “they usually have to start from square one.”
Seeing an opportunity, the Microsoft boss organised a new research group that became known as the Robotics Developer Studio (RDS). Its mission was to create a set of software tools that would allow anyone interested in robotics—even if they had only the most rudimentary understanding of computer programming—to write applications that would work with different kinds of hardware. As far as Microsoft was concerned, the robotics industry—like the PC industry before it—would not take off until most of the basic standards and tools for developing applications were in place. That was four years ago.
The emergence of such standards and tools has now begun to happen. On May 20th, Microsoft announced it was going to make the whole of its RDS software suite available to anyone for free, hoping to expand its user base by attracting hobbyists and entrepreneurs as well as academic researchers. Previously, a limited edition of the RDS suite could be downloaded for free, but the full professional version cost real money.
But Microsoft is not the only one bidding for a piece of the personal-robot pie. Evolution Robotics of Pasadena, California, has a popular platform called ERSP for developing robots and automation. Then there is Gostai, a robotics-software company in Paris, with an open-source platform called Urbi. Player Project, another open-source tool kit for developing robot applications launched a decade ago by a couple of researchers at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, is used widely in education.
But none—not even Microsoft—has as comprehensive a package for developing robot applications as Willow Garage, a four-year-old spinout from the Robotics Lab at Stanford University. A week ago, your correspondent stood transfixed in a large tent behind Willow Garage’s premises in Menlo Park, California, watching as over a dozen autonomous robots rehearsed a line-dancing routine for an office party. They nodded their heads and swung their arms and bodies to and fro, all in perfect unison. After that, your correspondent was prepared to believe personal robots were capable of doing anything—if only we knew what we needed them to do.
Earlier in the day, he had seen numerous other PR2 machines made by Willow Garage trundle around the laboratory without bumping into anyone or anything, picking up objects, stowing them, and doing other chores. And, yes, they could even plug themselves into a power socket to recharge their own batteries.
“We have shifted from how to build a robot to how to use it,” said Eric Berger, a director at Willow Garage. “It’s now all about how to make me—the user—more productive.”
There are numerous robot applications for doing personal chores, such as vacuuming carpets, ironing sheets or cutting grass. But the killer applications for personal robots remain as illusive as ever.
With no proprietary secrets to lose, and everything to gain from having as many teams as possible use its open-source software, Willow Garage is giving away 11 of its $400,000 PR2 robots and software development kits to research groups around the world for them to develop applications of their own. All told, some 78 research groups submitted proposals. The hope, of course, is that someone, somewhere, will come up with the killer app that kick-starts the whole of the personal-robot industry.
What separates Willow Garage’s PR2 robots from the rest is not just their deftness on the dance floor, nor even their potential handiness around the home. Far more important is the mobile operating system, called ROS, that manipulates the machine’s two arms and hands, controls its movement around a building, manages its various sensors and communicates wirelessly with a web server, all the while building a constantly updated visual model of the world the robot is inhabiting.
Being open-source like Urbi or Player Project, all the source code in the ROS framework is freely available for other robotics groups to download and use. But more than any other robotics codebase, proprietary or open-source, the Willow Garage software seems to have generated the most enthusiasm among third parties. As such, it is in a strong position to become the industry’s de facto standard—in short, the Microsoft Windows of robotics.
Today, the robotics industry is on the cusp of moving beyond fixed, industrial applications like welding and painting car bodies. To make the transition to a world of mobile personal assistants—for helping the disabled, providing care and companionship for the elderly, extending the strength and endurance of soldiers, handling hazardous materials and dangerous machinery, and many things more—is going to require a leap of imagination that no-one can yet foresee.
Looking back, few hobbyists tinkering with early eight-bit computers would have predicted that the lowly accountant’s worksheet would become the killer app that established the PC and brought the mainframe’s dominance to a close. After Lotus 1-2-3 hit the market, though, it was all so obvious—and the PC industry never looked back. What we really need today, it seems, is a visionary with the imagination of a Philip K. Dick to realise what the spreadsheet of personal robotics might be.