Personal robots. Gordon McComb.
It sat, motionless, in the corner of the room. At first, the passers-by mistook it for a wet/dry shop vac. "Must be one of those new-fangled Japanese jobs," I heard an obnoxious salesman say. "You know, the kind you can use to pick up anything."
Moments later, the "vacuum cleaner" mysteriously began to move on its own, and bumped into desks, chairs, and people on its way. It careened around guests and furniture with a tipsy drunkenness, then stopped, remained still for a moment, and continued on with its adventure. Whatever it was, it was eerily feeling its way around the room, studying its surroundings. It was definitely cleaning the carpet.
An uneasy silence fell over the small crowd. The only sound that filled the air was the high-pitch whine of motor-driven wheels. Soon all, including the dim-witted salesman, began to realize that the two-foot tall metal and plastic canister was no ordinary household gadget, nothing as mundane as a machine to suck up dust balls.
It was a robot.
Indeed, the "shop vac" cum automaton described above--the RB5X from Golden, Colorado-based RB Robots--is just one of the first in what soon will become a long line of "personal robots": clanking and whirring mechanical contraptions that we will use to help us wash the car, change the cat's litter box, watch over the baby, protect the house.
Science fiction stuff? So were the visions of a computer in every home, particle beam "space weapons," atomic fusion, and pocket TVs. Fantasy has an unnerving way of creeping into reality.
Today, personal robotics is where personal computers were in the early-to-mid 70's. The computing industry took nearly ten years to blossom into what it is now. Consumer robotics has just started--it officially began only a year ago. Some believe that it, and not computers, will be this decade's fastest growing industry.
Many companies, mainly Heath, Androbot, and RB Robots, have already started their campaigns to bring automation into the home. What is available today, and is it more than and curio? More importantly, where is robotics heading? Why isn't robotics more advanced? The industry seems behind the times. And what might appear in the few short years?
Let's take a closer look at robots: their past, their present, and their future, and find out if the aluminum and molded plastic bucket of bolts we call "robot" is really here to stay. Turning Back The Clock
Before anything can be said about present-day robots and their eventual use in our society, we must turn back the clock and take a short peek at the history of the robot.
It is believed that the roots of robots can be traced as far back as Greek mythology to Talos, a giant man-like bronze automation who guarded the island of Crete. The further use of functionoids in literature, however, seemed not to proliferate until the early 1800's. An example from that time is "The Sandman," a tale about a beautiful dancing robot by German writer E.T.A. Hoffman.
Other writers, including Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Jules Verne, soon picked up on the idea of machines doing the work of humans. Perhaps the dawn of the industrial age and the advent of steam-driven locomotion, had something to do with the true birth of mechanical man.
In 1921, Karel Capek, Czeck playwright and novelist, coined the term "robot" in his play "R.U.R." ("Rossum's Universal Robots"). The term robot is based on the Czech robota, meaning compulsory labor; and robotnik, meaning workman. Capek's robots, played by actors in silvery suits and shoes, rebelled against their masters, thus setting a precedent that has continued to this day: robots as a symbol of evil.
Robots continued to serve as a hint of the dark side of man in science fiction works for nearly two more decades. In 1940, however, writer Isaac Asimov broke the spell when he wrote a story called "Strange Playfellow," about Robbie, a robot that couldn't help but be loving and faithful and kind.
To make robots more palatable to an audience used to mechanical antagonists, Asimov later defined three rules all robots in his stories obey (some other authors have adopted these rules into their writing, too). The first, and most important rule: "A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come ot harm."
Although Asimov believes that this rule is applicable to real-life robots as well, his golden vision is without basis: already government-owned robots are being used as sentries, providing their masters "shoot to kill" capabilities.
Fiction, more than anything else, has played an important role in the acceptance or non-acceptance of the robot. On one hand we see Asimov's Robbie and R2-D2 and C-3PO of Star Wars. On the other, we have such hedonists as Kronos (who appeared in a terrible 1957 movie by the same name), Gort (from the classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still"), and Maximilian (the devilish robot from Disney's "The Black Hole").
Androbot, a new company financed by ex-Atari mogul Nolan Bushnell, has striven to develop "friendly" robots. Handless and footless, the Androbot family rolls around on two motor-driven wheels that are canted at 45-degree angles. Their cute bodies and soulful "eyes" (actually various types of sensors) were designed to make them seem less intimidating.
Androbot spends a great deal of time trying to convince people that robots are kind and gentle. For example, one press release for Topo, the less intelligent of the two Androbots, has a line that reads: "From the very look and shape of the head and body style, Topo tells you that he's going to be a cheerful, loyal friends."
To add credence to their claims of gentleness, Androbot built Topo and B.O.B. with stress-sensing capability. If Topo or B.O.B. encounters an obstacle, the stress circuit detects the overload on the motor and shuts the robot down. The plastic hand or "claw" on Heath's robot, Hero 1, has a similar safety mechanism. A ratchet-like device on the hand keeps the pincher from exerting too much force.
There is one other reason that robots seem frightening to people, and no amount of cuteness can correct it. Since the introduction of the robot into industry in the 1950's, skilled and unskilled laborers alike have feared that they will be replaced by robots.
People had a similar feeling when computers began taking over mundane office tasks. But the general attitude today is that, if anything, computers have created jobs, and higher paying ones at that. The bottom line: Robots, like computers, must earn their keep--and the respect of humans working with them.
Already, it seems, robots are doing just that. The few computer dealers across the country who handle robots report that there is intense public interest in them, and that often demand is much greater than supply. Topo
Industry robots do so many weld joints per hour and handle this or that substance faster and safer than a human; today's personal robot, in contrast, is rather limited and unintelligent--the equivalent of a six- to nine-month-old child.
On the bottom of the price scale--and the intelligence scale--is one of Androbot's creation: Topo. In his standard $495 configuration, he is simply a motorized hunk of plastic. He has no computer on board to direct his actions.
Instead, you hook a special controller to the RS-232 communications port on your computer. The controller sends infrared signals to Topo and tells him what to do. Any sequence of commands sent to the robot can also be stored simultaneously on disk to be retrieved later.
In addition, Topo sends information back through the wireless link to your computer, telling it how far he has gone and how much progress he has made in carrying out your instructions. Alternatively, you can control Topo directly with an infrared emitting hand-held joystick.
In some respects, Topo is the most advanced robot on the market, because even the most sophisticated computer and computer program can control his actions. The problem is that Topo must be near your computer to receive instructions.
Topo comes with a TopoForth disk that runs on an Apple II/IIe, Atari 400/800/1200, IBM PC, Texas Instruments 99/4A, Vic 20, or Commodore 64 computer. Since TopoForth is a standard version of the Forth language, original software--by the user or by third party programmers--can be custom designed for the robot.
Topo also comes in a $795 talking version with an on-board voice synthesizer. Like his motions, his voice is remote controlled via the computer-to-Topo infrared link. As with most speech synthesis devices. Topo uses text-to-speech algorithms to allow easier programming. With text-to-speech, you needn't learn a complex table of codes to produce understandable English. B.O.B.
Topo's bigger--and smarter--brother is B.O.B. (for Brains on Board). The unit has two true 16-bit 8086 microprocessors built into it (compatible with the 8088 chip used in the IBM PC). Standard on the $2995 robot is 3Mb of RAM. B.O.B. needs two CPUs and so much memory because he does many things at once. Each 8086 chip regulates only a part of B.O.B.
B.O.B. comes with a program that allows him to navigate a living space and talk in a human-like voice (the speech synthesizer inside B.O.B. uses a linear predictive coding technique and draws on a ready set of digitized, pre-recorded phrases). As he converses, he randomly chooses from over one hundred stored words and lines. Infrared sensors mounted in his head attract B.O.B. to humans, who he may follow at will (and sometimes he doesn't; it depends on his mood). In the process, he avoids inanimate objects in his path via the ultrasonic sensors located in his head.
B.O.B. features the Androbus system (nearly everything in the Androbot line starts with Andro). With Androbus, B.O.B. has--the company claims--a limitless potential for expansion: through add-ons to his existing circuitry and the use of owner-created and commercially available software. Plug-in boards may soon be available to accommodate specific B.O.B. upgrades, such as voice recognition, text-to-speech voice synthesis, and digitized eyesight.
B.O.B. can be user programmed through a specially developed language called ACL (Androbot Control Language). Ready-made software for B.O.B. is expected to include AndroSentry, a home security/alarm package, and AndroFridge, a unique "me boss, you slave" program and accessory that permits the robot to fetch a can of beer (or Coke or Pepsi or 7-Up) for his master.
B.O.B. lacks some important features, however. The most obvious is that he has no arms or hands. B.O.B. just rolls around the room seeking out people and telling them jokes. He does have two fold down panels that hold objects (like cans of beer), but they can't reach out and grasp things. Hero
As a matter of fact, the only personal robot on the market today that comes with an appendage is Heath's Hero 1 (which stands for Heath Education RObot). Hero, who stands 20" high, has less CPU power and less memory than B.O.B. Built into Hero is a Motorola 6808 CPU along with 4K of RAM, and 8K of ROM. Both RAM and ROM are expandable. Assembled, Hero costs $2500; in kit form, only $1500.
Like B.O.B., Hero has a bus port that allows you to experiment and hook additional things up the unit. The port is less user-friendly than B.O.B.'s, but that is because Hero was really designed as an educational tool for robotics.
Hero also incorporates an ultrasonic sensor that allows him to detect movement or calculate distances. One routine Hero does quite well is the detection of intruders. Point his moveable head (actually a flat plate on top of its squarish body) at a door or window, and he will detect the presence of an adult as much as 15 feet away.
Unique to Hero, and part of his impressive array of features, are his voice synthesis and "voice recognition" capabilities. The voice synthesizer built into Hero is based on the familiar Votrax SC-01 chip, the same one used in Votrax's text-to-speech synthesizer, Type 'N Talk. The chip can create 64 different vocal sounds. A four-step pitch control that helps create more human-like inflection is standard on the SC-01.
Hero hears sound in a 360-degree circle, over a frequency range of 200 to 5000 Hz which more than covers the approximate range of the human voice. The voice input circuitry of Hero converts the incoming sound to 8-bit digital words for processing.
The voice recognition unit really doesn't recognize speech as some of the more sophisticated models do. The processing approach taken by Hero limits his overall effectiveness, but it can be used to count syllables or sounds. For example, you can program Hero to fetch a can of either Coke or 7-Up. He determines which kind of soft drink to get not by examining the minute parts of speech that make up the words, but by counting syllables. Say "Mountain Dew" and he will still get you 7-Up.
Another of Hero's sensors is a light detector. The robot can be programmed to seek out a particular brightness of light (or the lack or presence of it). You can program Hero to search for the brighest light in the room, for instance. He will swivel his head slowly, taking in the entire room, and then decide which is the brightest light.
Hero isn't as much fun as B.O.B. To make Hero go anywhere, you must program his movements step by step into a keyboard on his noggin. You can also "quick teach" Hero by using what Heath calls a remote teaching pendant, an overgrown joystick that attaches to the robot through an 8-foot long cable. With the pendant, you can access all of the eight stepper motors that control Hero's body and arm movement. RB5X
Another robot aimed primarily at the educational market, but with features more like those of an Androbot, is RB5X, one of the first personal robots to be offered commercially. As shipped from the factory, the $1495 RB5X has an ultrasonic range finding system and a unique set of eight bumper pads located around his base. A small photoelectric cell is mounted on the underside of his body. RB5X maneuvers around the house in a more or less hit or miss method; you just let him loose and he bounces around the room.
Depending on which bumper pad has been activated, the robot takes evasive action to clear himself and continues on. As he goes about his way, he is learning how to react to each collision. Soon, his event memory pieces all of the hits and runs together and compiles the best way to move around.
Inside RB5X is a National Semiconductor INS8073 CPU with 8K of RAM. The company claims that any computer with a standard RS-232C communications interface can connect to the robot, to add external software control. The robot is programmed in NSC Tiny Basic.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of RB5X is his "nesting" capability. B.O.B., Topo, and Hero require human masters to plug them in so their batteries can be recharged. But whe RB5X feels hungry for more juice, he seeks out his own battery charger and plugs himself in. This is how it works: when RB5X senses he is low on fuel, he automatically puts himself into his nest-search program, and begins looking for a white piece of tape on the floor.
The White tape, which stretches from where RB5X is playing to the battery charger, helps the robot find his way back home. He follows the tape until he finds his charger, and plugs himself in. If he spots the middle of the tape and moves away from the charger, the robot automatically stops at the end of the tape, backs up, and retraces his steps.
RB5X can be upgraded to include an on-board speech synthesizer. In addition, RB Robots has introduced an arm for the unit, which gives him Hero-like capabilities. Perhaps the most useful add-on to RB5X, however, is a vacuum attachment that connects the lower skirt of the machine. Given the proper program, RB5X can move back and forth, avoiding obstacles, and vacuum the room. With the eight sensors mounted around his body, he will even detect if you have moved the furniture. Going Further
Although not quite as much fun to work as mobile robots, robotic arms can be useful around the house as well. There are several models currently available. Because they are made to lift heavier weights than Heath's Hero, which can lift only 16 ounces, they are more expensive and bulkier.
One is Microbot's Mini-Mover 5, a human-like appendage with six stepper motors to control such functions as wrist rotation, shoulder pitch, and elbow bend. The arm can be interfaced through a 3-foot cable to an Apple II or Apple IIe and most TRS-80 computers. Control of the arm is through a special extension of Basic that Microbot calls ArmBasic. Other robotic arms are the XR-1 from Rhino and Microbot's MIM5.
Announced, but not yet available as of this writing, is a new automation from Robotics International called Genus. The new robot, it is said, will include an extendable and usable arm, on-board memory and on-board microprocessing. The triple jointed arm, perhaps its most useful feature, retracts inside its near cylindrical body. It should be more than adquate for most chores. The cost for Genus, which is available in "sections," will be about $5000 for a well-equipped version. Robotics International says household attachments, such as vacuum cleaner wands, will be offered. Glimpse Of The Future
What can we look forward to in future generations of personal robotics? Today's robots cater to the hobbyist and the gadgeteer. They are limited and a bit difficult to use. And many are meant more to educate than to entertain or serve.
Tomorrow's robot will do all these things and without much bother by the user. Given advances in computing technology such as cheaper and smaller memory, tiny hard disk drives, and sophisticated, special purpose control languages, the personal robot of tomorrow should go far. Soon--perhaps as soon as three to five years from now--specific applications programs for robots will be commonplace. A home security, room vacuuming, or bartending program (complete with jokes) might do for the robotics industry what WordStar and VisiCalc did for the computing industry.
The first digital wathces and pocket calculators were extremely expensive. The cost to research and develop high technology devices such as these is enormous. But as these items became more popular, their prices dropped. The relatively high cost for robots--$495 to $500--will surely drop, too, making it impractical for you not to own one.
How might you use a robot? I know how I would use mine: Feed the cat, fetch the mail, wake me in the morning, mix me a drink at 5:30 in the afternoon, get (and open) a can of soda from the refrigerator, watch over my house at night and when I'm away, check for open windows or doors in the winter-time, plug in the coffee pot in the early morning, read Creative Computing to me . . .