A New York Times reporter asks whether robots will become near future sources of disruptions in how we live.
The dinner was at Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park, and was intended to introduce some reporters to the robots the company is building.
The main attraction was the PR2, which can pick things up, fold laundry, open doors and bring cups, plates and other small objects to people. The PR2 is pretty stunning to see in action. Its price, $400,000 for the fully functional version, is pretty stunning, too. And although it is impressive to watch, it is still easily baffled by the mundane.
While fairly simple-minded robots from iRobot can do moderate carpet cleaning that review highlights some of their limitations. Since they are battery powered and small they don't clean as well as a regular vacuum and they cost more besides. When will the power problem be solved for non-stationary home robots? Will we have tracks along the ceiling for power cords dangling down to move with a robotic floor cleaner or a robotic bedroom organizer? When will we get robots in the home doing more physically tricky tasks such as preparing and cooking meals or removing and folding laundry or cleaning kitchen and bathroom counter surfaces?
Before we get really good home robots I expect robots to make much bigger inroads in institutional settings. The cost of the computer power can be amortized over serving many customers when it works in a robotic cafeteria or fast food burger kitchen. Though really fast fiber optic computer networks into residential neighborhoods will some day allow home robots to be more cost effectively controlled by massively parallel cloud servers. So the home robots won't have to have all of their computer capacity sitting idle. This will improve the economics of home robotics.
Currently Willow Garage is trying to attract large numbers of software developers to use their robot platform as a foundation to create useful software. Check out their PR2 Beta Program.
Their PR2 can do some useful tasks, albeit slowly. PR2 Robot Fetches Beer from the Refrigerator
As robots become powerful enough and cheap enough to do a substantial fraction of the jobs currently held by lower paying blue collar workers we are going to have a big problem with zero marginal product workers. How close are we to that day?
Even lawyers are getting automated out of jobs. Back in 1978 legal discovery costs could run into the millions for large numbers of workers sifting thru documents.
When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” — providing documents relevant to a lawsuit — the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million, much of it to pay for a platoon of lawyers and paralegals who worked for months at high hourly rates.
The world has radically changed due to advances in computer hardware and software. Computers now replace lots of legal brain power.
But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.
Was the $100k the total cost? It is not clear. But an inflation calculator shows $2.2 million in 1978 is $7.4 million in 2011.
Imagine a robot judge accepting filings from robot prosecutors and robot defense attorneys. The debates in many cases would proceed at speeds too fast for humans to follow. Still, a slower legal process could still happen due to computational costs for preparing arguments and analyzing opposing arguments. For example, imagine that the defense wants to prove their client was somewhere else at the time of a crime. The defense could file for a delay in order to have more time to run algorithms to filter thru video camera feeds looking for indications some camera caught the defendant somewhere else.
The defense could also try to come up with legal theories that are too computationally expensive to disprove. The prosecution could then complain that the defense has unfairly asserted a position based on an assertion that can't be disproved because any algorithm capable of generating a disproof would be of the complexity class NP-complete (at least unprovable today and possibly always unprovable).
Computational complexity will become a subject of legal rulings. Should reasonable doubt be allowed to rest on (seemingly improbable) interpretations of events that are computationally impossible to prove or disprove? Will defense teams (human or otherwise) be allowed to search for theories of events that can't be proved or disproved due to the enormous computational complexity of algorithms needed to test their theories?
Legal automation will proceed apace regardless of how these questions are resolved. Let us take a look at the big picture: how far will computer automation of human jobs go? Some people think that regardless of cognitive difficulty repetitive jobs will get automated but non-repetitive jobs won't. But as Paul Krugman notes at that link, even medical diagnosis stands a good chance of getting automated. So is it repetitive? That page also shows truck driving as a non-repetitive job. But wait a second. Google has automated guidance systems racking up many tens of thousands of miles driving cars on California highways. So how can truck driving be safe from automation? If truck driving isn't safe from automation then taxi driving isn't either.
Delivery truck driving might be safe for humans for a while longer just because humans have to hop out and deliver packages to the front door of a house or business. But suppose robotic delivery devices could deposit items into special delivery boxes out on streets? That'd allow automated delivery from not only online stores but also grocery stores.
What about the grocery stores? Well, no need for human check-out if robots get the food off the shelves. Kiva warehouse robots cut out human labor. These robots are going to enable automated local warehouses. So imagine grocery stories replaced with automated warehouses loading automated delivery vehicles to deliver groceries to houses. Deliveries could be scheduled to happen when you are at home so that getting perishables into the fridge in a timely manner won't be a problem.
New York Times writer Ron Lieber argues that online ordering from Amazon does not have to become as cheap as in-person shopping at Costco for Amazon to become preferred due to the time savings of online shopping. This has implications for automation. If you order stuff rather than buy it in person then its shipment to you is much more amenable to automation. As robotic delivery trucks hit the road and warehouse robot costs fall and they become more powerful and easier to manage the distance between home and warehouse will shrink. So the timeliness advantage of the local store will decline. Add in robotic delivery vehicles and why spend a couple of hours on a trip to a big box store?
Then there's work supervision. Supposedly non-repetitive and by humans only. Why? The theory is that humans need human supervision. But if bottom level tasks get automated then human supervisors aren't needed for the robots. And for some kinds of human tasks computers will eventually do much more monitoring and directing. This is already happening. For example, humans that package up orders (whether in restaurant kitchens or warehouses) are in many cases just reading order lists off a computer screen. In many of those cases no human supervisor chose which lists of foods or ordered goods to put on each computer screen. Humans are already under computer supervision. That'll happen even more in the future. We will enter our restaurant orders in a touch screen and no waitress will see that order before the order cook (human or robotic) sees it.
What other jobs are under threat from computers? Martin Ford sees radiology as a prime candidate for computer automation. Given that rising medical costs are stagnating living standards I'd rather see that happen sooner than later.
News reporting is at risk of automation too. The companies writing low quality web site content farms (whose content Google is trying to detect and avoid) are trying to develop automated news writing software that has higher quality. Out in the battlefield of Afghanistan 1 robot per 50 soldiers shows a trend toward robotic soldiers. So web wars and physical wars are both spurring development of more computer automation.
This week, women all over America -- and not a few men -- are cooing and doting over their surprise hit Christmas present. They swoon when it hides under the couch and plays peekaboo. When it gets tired and finds its way back to its nest, sings a little song and then settles into a nap, its little power button pulsing like a beating heart, on, off, on, off, they swear they can hear it breathe.
It's as cute as E.T., as devoted as R2D2, more practical than a robotic dog and cheaper than some iPods.
iRobot's Roomba is a big seller.
More than 2 million of the machines, which range in price from about $150 to $330, have been sold. The day after Christmas, a Roomba was among the top 20 items in Amazon.com's vast home-and-garden section, ahead of the top-selling iron, the top-selling blender, the top-selling coffeemaker and the top-selling George Foreman grill. In Housewares, different models were Nos. 1, 6 and 8, ahead of all the other vacuum cleaners, including the DustBusters.
Automation of boring house work is a wonderful thing. I especially want full automation of food preparation. Picture a bunch of bins that you'd load with noodles, rice, and other basic dried goods. Plus, imagine a bunch of small spice bins. Then an automated system like an miniaturized warehouse robot would take small amounts from each bin and put the ingredients into a pot which would first be removed from a standard position on a rack and placed on a stove. If the automated system needed to, say, take an unopened bottle of ketchup from a shelf it would put an RFID tag on the bottle and put the bottle in the refrigerator after removing some ketchup. So when will we get the kitchen cook robot? 10 years? 20 years?
An MIT Technology Review article on the future of robots reports home robots surpassed industrial robots in number in 2005.
Domestics. If the latest figures are to be believed, 2007 will be the year of the robotic revolution. According to the latest Robotics Survey, published in October by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, domestic robots now outstrip their industrial cousins. In 2005, the number of domestic droids exceeded the one million milestone, a figure that is now expected to rise into the several millions over the next few years. Christensen believes that next year South Korea will likely come out with the first truly multifunctional home robot. The South Korean government is committed to becoming a leader in robotics and has announced a plan to have a robot in every home by 2013.
The industrial robots cost more and deliver more economic value. But the trend is clear. Home robotics has started to become a part of the present and not just a science fiction dream about the future.
While the term "Roomba" has achieved popularity in the mainstream culture iRobot also makes some less well known mass market floor cleaning robots. The Scooba cleans hard floors such as found in kitchens and bathrooms. The Dirt Dog cleans nails, bolts, and other small debris from shop floors. Scooba can clean just about any floor that a mop can clean.
Scooba is designed to safely clean all sealed hard floor surfaces, including tile, linoleum, marble and sealed hardwood—wherever you would typically use a standard mop. Scooba uses water and a specially designed Clorox® cleaning solution that is safe and effective on all sealed hard floor surfaces.
I can see one problem with these devices: Pets! My late great Australian Shepherd thought all wheeled devices were things to bite at. If I was pushing along a lawn mower that was not running he'd try to bite the wheels. So if you have a dog at home with access to the insides of the house and you set the Roomba or Scooba to do cleaning while you are at work what is Fido or Fluffy going to do when one of these devices starts cruising around? Maybe the simple solution is to start it running as one goes out the door to walk the dog.
How quickly will we get a taller device that'll vacuum couches and chairs or dust window sills and other ledges? The liability risk would be much higher for such a device. Plus, it would be a tougher problem to solve since the device would more in more dimensions with more axes of motion. The same difficulties hold for something tall enough to clear the dishes from the table and put them into the dish washer with the table scraps removed.
Spiralling costs and an aging population make health an area that cries out for robotic automation. Another Technology Review article reports on efforts to provide better physical feedback from robots to surgeons.
Robotic surgical systems have become a staple in operating rooms, advancing the field of minimally invasive surgery. These computer-assisted tools help surgeons conduct more-precise in-depth procedures. The robots are often praised for their dexterity, advanced visualization technologies, and mechanical stamina. But there is one important aspect the robots are missing: a sense of touch, also known as haptics.
A Johns Hopkins team is working on the haptics problem.
To develop such technology, Okamura and her team are working with the da Vinci surgical system made by Intuitive Surgical; it's the only robot approved by the FDA for conducting surgical procedures. The da Vinci is particularly useful in laparoscopic surgical procedures, such as the removal of the gallbladder or prostate. It also makes it possible to perform minimally invasive procedures for general noncardiac surgical procedures inside the chest.
Surgical robots will serve as aides to human surgeons in much the same way that automatic pilots do work for real pilots. Surgical robots will eventually do subsets of steps within longer surgical procedures. For example a surgical robot could probably be designed to show graphically what they plan to do for a sequence by overlaying an animation over an already sliced open area of the body. Then a surgeon could approve of that sequence and the robot could perform the sequence more rapidly and accurately than a human could.
We are moving beyond the stage where robots were used only in controlled and therefore relatively simple factory environments. The home and the surgical operating table are both much more complicated environments with more unplanned and unexpected elements that can show up. Recent advances in robotic vehicles demonstrate the potential for robotic systems to handle complex environments outside of factories. The success of robots in the mass market will provide revenue flows to fund the development of more robotic products. We should expect the introductions of new kinds of home and workplace robots in the next few year. Robots are a growing part of our everyday lives.