Robot revolution closer, but not here yet

Advances are being made, but personal robots are some way off

Much like the then-fledgling PC industry in the late 1970s, the robotics industry is on the verge of a revolution, contends the head of Microsoft's robotics group.

Today's giant, budget-bending robots that are run by specialists in factories and on assembly floors are evolving into smaller, less-expensive and cuter machines that clean our carpets, entertain us and may someday take care of us as we grow old. The move is akin to the shift from the mainframe world of the 1970s to the personal computers that have invaded offices and homes over the past 20 to 25 years.

"The transition is starting," says Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's three-year-old robotics group. "It's like we're back in 1977 -- four years before the IBM PC came out. We were seeing very primitive but very useful machines that were foreshadowing what was to come. In many ways, they were like toys compared to what we have today. It's the same with robots now."

Trower says many countries are making significant investments in robotics, and advances are beginning to multiply. Robotic aids and companions — some looking like an updated version of R2-D2 and others more humanoid — will begin moving into our homes in three to five years as technology advances and prices drop, he predicts.

"Robots are really an evolution of the technology we have now," he says. "We're just adding to our PCs, really. We're letting them get up off our desks and move around. They're evolving into something you will engage with and will serve you in your life someway."

Some experts, though, are hesitant to talk of revolutions, especially in an industry that has seen many promises made that have yet to materialise.

James Kuffner, an associate professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, warns that any revolution could be lengthy, as robots likely won't soon be doing dishes and walking dogs for about 20 years.

"People ask me when they'll have a Jetsons -like robot walking around their house," Kuffner says. "I tell them the first gas-powered engine was built in 1885, but it took until 1915 before a large segment of the population could afford a car. When that happened, society was transformed. In the 1950s, the first computers were built, but it wasn't until the early '80s when the personal computer came on the scene. And, of course, it completely transformed society."

Kuffner says the he believes the robot revolution countdown should start in 1996 when Honda released the P2, a self-contained, life-size humanoid machine. Going by historical example, a good portion of the population could have a robot in the home by 2026, he says.

"The Roomba vacuum cleaner is often seen as the first successful home robot, but it's pretty limited," Kuffner says. "So, sure, you can say we have robots in our homes. But a humanoid robot like you see in Hollywood movies, designed to perform a large number of tasks without special programming or tuning? In about 20 years."

Neena Buck, an independent robotics analyst, agrees that the robotics business will take off, but that it will be some time before humanoid robots are washing cars or dancing. First, she says, there will be single-task robots for house cleaning and the like, and exoskeletal robots to help people with infirmities.

"A Jetsons robot — I don't think that's how it will happen," she says. "Maybe people need to change their vision of a robot."

Trower says robotics has been slow to grow in recent years because of the lack of a standard software platform — the very thing Microsoft mandated he create.

The Microsoft robotics group, which is tasked with generating profits within three to five years, is now updating its Robotics Studio software, which includes a tool set and a set of programming libraries that sit on top of Windows. The studio also includes a programming language and a simulator, so that developers can first try out programs in a virtual world. The latest version of the studio platform is slated to ship by the end of this year, says Trower.

"The robotics industry needs portability," says Trower. "There's been no standard. We wanted to make it easy for the industry to bootstrap itself. I truly think software is holding the robotic industry back."

Software was definitely holding back graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in their quest to build a new version of the school's uBot robot.

Bryan Thibodeau and Patrick Deegan are both graduate students who have been building the fifth generation of uBot, dubbed uBot-5, a two-wheeled, two-armed robot that can maintain its balance.

The developers say they expect to save significant time during the development of uBot 6, due to the use of Robotics Studio in their current project. "We can transfer applications we've written before for this to other robots," says Deegan. "This is the fifth generation, and we had to write code from scratch every time. The next time, we won't. It'll save us tons of time — probably six months minimum. Now, we can start from here and keep going."

He and Thibodeau say they hope the uBot will eventually be used to help care for the growing elderly population, helping them stay in their homes longer and more safely.

With two arms that one day could open a door, two wheels to move it about a home, and a rotating torso and touch screen that could enable it to "look" about its environment, Trower calls uBot-5 is a good example of what's likely the next generation of in-home robots.

"The idea of dexterous manipulation makes a difference," he says. "It would be able to interact with things in the home environment, load the dishwasher, fold clothes. Once it has two arms, it opens up a huge variety of possibilities."

A touch screen that sits on the uBot-5's shoulders could act, for example, as a sort of portal for an elderly woman living alone. If the woman fell and was unresponsive, the robot could be programmed to recognise the problem and alert emergency response services. Her doctor could access the robot through his computer, see what the robot sees and speak to the woman through the robot. His face could appear on the screen, making it more natural for the two to talk to each other, using the robot as the conduit.

Richard Doherty, research director at The Envisioneering Group, a market research firm, says progress in the robotics industry could be limited or slowed because people will be afraid of losing their jobs — such as a home care assistant — to robots.

"In this country, people are afraid for their jobs. They don't want to see a robotic coffee maker or robots that could change your oil, or take care of the elderly," says Doherty. "It's job inertia. We need to see robots in a different light. We need people to understand that this machine could help care for their grandmother."

While iRobot's Roomba may be a vacuum cleaner and not a companion, Trower notes that people who own the robots identify with them, often naming them, drawing faces on them and even insisting that broken ones be repaired rather than replaced with a new machine.

"This is part of the evolution," says Trower. "We now see robots coming into people's lives and living with us. It's sneaking in and saying, 'Aren't I cute?'"

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