Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
The Robots Are Coming
Technological advances seem to be hitting the consumer marketplace with such force and frequency that we are in danger of becoming numbed by their announcement. It is hard, for example, to believe that the personal computer field is only a few years old – or that powerful languages like Logo have become available to the home computerist only in the past two years.
As we watch these developments eclipse each other, we might ask ourselves what will happen next? What technological development could possibly hit the consumer marketplace with such force that it might displace our current technological wonders as the benchmarks of our age?
Well, I've given it a lot of thought, and I have an answer.
By now, many of you have seen news stories on the Heath HERO-1 and the Androbot TOPO. In watching these contraptions on the evening news, you might have said to yourself, "So what?" After all, we see robots in the movies all the time, and the use of robots in dangerous or boring assembly tasks has been going on for years.
The reason domestic robots are important is that, like the personal computer, they are designed for personal use by people in their own homes. This means that, for the first time, we will individually take control of robots and shape them to our personal needs, just as we did with computers.
The robots used by industry are reminiscent of the computers used by business – large specialized machines designed to perform clearly defined tasks with efficiency.
In more ways than one, the domestic robot in 1983 reminds me of the home computer in 1978. For example, in 1978 there wasn't a whole lot one could do with a personal computer. The software industry was in its infancy (residing mainly in spare rooms and garages), but the people who bought computers then were pioneers – brave souls who not only were the first to experience the computer revolution, but who also helped make it happen either by writing software themselves or by helping to identify those areas where software was needed.
All of which brings me to 1983 and the beginning of a new industry.
Where Are They Headed?
The domestic robot, as this is being written, is largely a tool for discovery, experimentation, and entertainment. The Heath product is oriented to the technical educational market as a tool for learning about robotics per se. The buyer of the Heath HERO not only gets to assemble the device (thus learning about everything from microprocessors to wheel drive systems), but also gets to program the robot at the most basic levels. The Androbot TOPO, on the other hand, is a fully assembled device designed to be operated with turtle graphics commands from a separate computer using BASIC or Logo.
Because of philosophical differences in the design of these two products, they will serve the needs of different audiences. I expect the Heath product to have more appeal to the hardware tinkerer – the sort of person who built his or her Northstar Horizon from a kit. TOPO may appeal more to application-oriented users.
At first glance, TOPO looks about as useful as an overgrown, radio-controlled Big Trak. It is sent commands to move forward and backward by some amount, or to turn to the right or left by some angle. It is thus a physical analog to the display turtle associated with languages like Logo and Atari PILOT.
In order to understand my enthusiasm for domestic robots, you almost need to experience them for yourself. There is something quite appealing about being able to write a program that sends a three-foot tall robot on a tour of your house. After watching a robot in action, you can't help but come up with lists of applications for these devices.
In the few weeks I have had TOPO, I have used it to help teach computer programming to third graders and to dance to a piece of music I play at the piano. These aren't earthshaking applications, but I've had TOPO only a short time.
Where are robots like TOPO headed? There are many applications that come to mind. When equipped with a simple cart, robots can help handicapped people carry things from room to room. If properly programmed, a robot can "walk" around the house each night "looking" for intruders. (I can't imagine very many intruders who would be willing to tangle with a robot.)
Clearly, just as with personal computers, the entertainment possibilities are endless. You could design games for groups of children that use a robot as one of the players – truly picking a child at random, for example. A robot that can be programmed to move pseudo-randomly in a room can be used for another game in which the children divide into two teams. One team has the goal of always staying to the "north" of the robot, while the other must always stay to the "east." As the robot moves, the children must move with it. Any children caught outside the safe zone are "out" until the next game.
The more I think about it, robots may help counter the fear I have heard that computers are turning our children into sedentary creatures. If this were true (and I tend to doubt it), robots would help reverse this trend.
What I find interesting is that the applications I mentioned (carrying things, roaming the house, playing games) are all feasible with today's robots and just a little bit of software development.
And what about the future? Will we still look on robots as the foreboding evil mechanisms destined to eliminate the less-than-perfect carbonaceous beings that created them?
I think not.
The personal computer made computing less intimidating to us by placing the power of this machine in the hands of individuals. So it will be with robots. By creating a domestic robot industry, we all benefit, even if we choose not to use robots ourselves.
As with computers, users and non-users alike should learn about robots.
Because they are there.
Next month we will continue to explore this topic by looking at the promise and potential of the next generation of robots, androids that adaptively program themselves in response to their environment.
In the meantime, you might want to read Isaac Asimov's book I, Robot. It will be moved off the fiction shelves soon.