A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 14, 2018

Here Come Everybody's Robot Pals

Humans are suckers for machines that minic their gestures and pretend to be their friends. That's a business opportunity. JL

Wilson Rothman reports in the Wall Street Journal:

At the CES 2018 tech show, if you spotted a humanoid robot, especially one with legs, it was a toy. The useful robots were on wheels, with stocky bodies.  A Kinect sees people in a room; an iPhone X sees eyes and a nose. Collecting data is easy, interpreting data is hard: Humans know the difference between people and couches, eyes and noses, but machines don’t. Homes will need fewer R2-D2s and more C-3POs. Which one would you rather have cooking your dinner—a bleeping trash can or a tall shiny-metal figure with arms and legs?
As robots evolve, homes will need fewer R2-D2s and more C-3POs. Which one would you rather have cooking your dinner—a bleeping trash can or a tall shiny-metal figure with arms and legs?
Dozens of robots turned up at the CES 2018 tech show in Las Vegas. If you spotted a humanoid robot, especially one with legs, it was probably a toy. The larger, more useful robots were mostly on wheels, with short, stocky bodies. These guys are designed and programmed to patrol parking lots, deliver room service, greet shoppers. They’re close relatives of the robo-vacuums we already know.
That’s set to change in the next decade. While the service droids will stick around, toiling in their niches, the robots we bring home will be more versatile. They won’t be vacuums—they’ll use our vacuum cleaners, plus all our other appliances and tools, says Ian Bernstein, co-inventor of the popular Sphero toy robot ball and founder of a startup called Misty Robotics.“Eventually, we should go home and there should be a robot that’s already prepared dinner and folded our laundry,” Mr. Bernstein says.
When we ask what a robot can do, we’re really thinking, Can it climb stairs? Can it juggle? Those are skills—the robotic equivalent of apps. A robot’s capabilities might let it grab things, even an iron. But a skill would enable it to iron a shirt.
To get there, today’s robots require a few advancements: They need to understand their environment with far more accuracy. They need to be able to interact with everything inside a human dwelling—the more they’re shaped like humans, the better. And they need a thriving industry of developers writing skills and building hardware add-ons to do things even the robots’ own inventors didn’t dream up.
Mr. Bernstein’s new venture is setting out on this road. He is so far offering only a small set of hand-built Misty I robots to developers. Still, his prior success with Sphero—especially the Star Wars BB-8 toy that evolved from it—and his new mission are helpful for understanding the challenges in getting robots to become truly useful in our homes.
Sensors and Smarts
Robots start as clean slates, with capabilities defined by their hardware specs. The Misty I robot can move on little tank treads, identify images and faces, sense obstacles and make noises. And it can support additional hardware, such as extra sensors or motors.
A big reason robots like Misty I now exist is a mapping sensor like the one in an Xbox Kinect or an iPhone X. It sprays everything in view with infrared dots, then plots out what’s near and what’s far. A Kinect sees people and couches in a room; an iPhone X sees eyes and a nose on a face.
Collecting the data is easy, interpreting the data is hard: We humans know the difference between people and couches, eyes and noses, but these machines don’t. They know just enough to do their jobs. Beyond that—say, to map out a home accurately—takes a massive amount of computing power, Mr. Bernstein says.
Arms and Legs
Let’s assume artificial-intelligence breakthroughs advance robots to where they can find their way around without getting lost. At that point, you’re going to want them to have arms and legs, so they can deal with everything in your home.
Arms are easier. Most near-humanoid robots on display at CES ran on wheels, but they had arms, often even hands. That’s important since so many things we take for granted, from turning doorknobs to squeezing ketchup bottles to tying shoelaces, are easy only because of our anatomy. There are lots of robotic hand alternatives—claws, suction cups, lassos—but fingers win, Mr. Bernstein says. “The robot needs to manipulate the same silverware set that we do.”
One robot at CES 2018, a Russian model named Promobot, has fingers, but just four on each hand. Cartoonists, historically, drew just four fingers to save on animation costs. (See Homer Simpson.) Promobot is missing a digit for a different reason.
“The last finger is not so useful,” says Oleg Kivokurtsev, Promobot’s co-founder, pointing to his pinkie. “I hope after 1,000 years, humans will not have this finger.”
As for legs? They’re very expensive, Mr. Kivokurtsev says. “Imagine, when you stand on one leg, you don’t think about it,” but you’re leaning a certain way, and adjusting your foot a certain way. “It’s huge mathematics,” he says.
Mr. Bernstein says legs are inevitable, though, if we want robots climbing stairs or, eventually, getting in and out of vehicles.
Apps and Accessories
In sci-fi movies, there’s often a monopolistic company churning out robots uniformly. Everyone’s robot looks, sounds and acts the same—until one goes haywire.
That isn’t how it is likely to turn out in real life. When the iPhone first came out in 2007, everyone’s looked the same. Yet just months after the App Store opened, you could tell your iPhone from someone else’s by the home-screen apps alone. Today, people customize their iPhones with cases, docks and other accessories—the entire experience is different from one person to the next.
To get beyond gimmicky robots that perform a finite set of pre-programmed tricks, the robot world would need the equivalent of the iPhone (or, perhaps more aptly, Android) ecosystem. There’s a big chicken-or-egg dilemma there: To attract developers, platforms like that need paying customers, but customers often buy in only after they see developer excitement.
If and when that platform takes off, robots would differentiate fast. Maybe my robot becomes a master of practical jokes, while yours knows kung fu.
Perhaps you’d also save up for fancy legs so your robot could trek up and down stairs all day, or keep up with you on a jog. I might care more about getting arms capable of doing serious kitchen prep. But wait—is it still home cooking if your robot cuts all the onions and carrots for you?


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