Robot Killer App
Apr 29, 2013

In an earlier post I asked which topics you prefer me to blog about. I was surprised that the topic of robots wasn’t popular. I say that because interest in anything is usually based on how much we expect it to influence our own lives. And I can’t imagine anything that will change all of our lives as much as the coming Robot Age. We are the last generation that will remember life before robots. In about five years, shit is gonna get real.

So how will the first big push into residential robotics happen? If you break your daily chores into categories, which of those categories do you see as the first killer apps for robots?

We already have robots that vacuum carpets. But armless robots that scoot along the carpet don’t impress me. I’m wondering when I’ll buy the first robot that can move through my home, manipulate things with its arms, and communicate by voice.

The other day, I was clearing the dinner table and putting dishes in the dishwasher. It occurred to me that technology has already reached the point at which a robot could clean your kitchen and dining table after a meal. A robot could collect plates, scrape the debris into the trash, and load a dishwasher. If you saw the Youtube video of a robot doing ironing, or pouring a glass of water, you know why I think the technology is already here.

I could also imagine a robot walking the family dog when everyone else is working or in school. You’d need the robot to train the dog with treats, just as a human would. But that seems doable. And the robot would need to have a DVR function in the cloud to record whatever is happening and discourage pranksters and dog thieves. Perhaps you, as the dog owner, could watch the entire walk on your smartphone or computer at work. You could even talk to passersby through the robot, just so they know they are being watched and video-recorded.

I also have a vision of a Transformers-like robot designed specifically for childcare. At night it turns into a bassinet with video feeds to the parents. If the baby cries, the parents can have the robot bring the baby to their room, or try to soothe it by rocking. When it’s time for a walk, the bassinet becomes a self-moving baby carriage. For meals, the robot morphs into a high stool. If the smoke detectors in the house go off, the robot carries the baby to safety automatically. And I would think it could sniff out a diaper problem and alert parents. A robot won’t replace adults for childcare anytime soon, but I can see childcare getting a lot easier with a robot helper. In time, the robot can even teach the kid language skills.

I think it will be a while before robots can cook gourmet meals or clean your bathroom just right. But I’ll bet we’ll have commercial robots that can clear a dinner table, take the dishes to the dishwasher, do laundry, and help with childcare in five years. And I think the price tag will be around $5,000, with a monthly maintenance plan of $100.

The first company that cracks the residential robot market has a good chance of becoming the most important company on earth. The robot revolution will make the industrial revolution look like practice swings.

By the way, if there are any college robotics majors looking for a fun project, I have one for you. I need a small robot that can find and pick up tennis balls from anywhere on the court and throw them in a hopper (a basket) on its back.

When a human takes a tennis lesson, or uses a ball machine to practice, the unpleasant part of the process is picking up the two hundred balls that are left all over the court. A tennis teacher could save ten minutes of tedium from every hour-long lesson.

I would think the technology for a tennis ball robot is already here. Let me know if someone already built one.

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May 6, 2013
About the tennis ball robot.
In Estonian TV science show Rakett69 two finalists had to build a manually operated robot for collecting balls off the floor and from elevated positions.
The reward of the show was 10 000 € grant for science/education.

The ideas are there. Need to add the automatic ball-recognition sensors/software and boundry recognition sensors/software.

Forming a team (from competitors who had to leave the show earlier) and building a robot:
Final preparations and competition: http://etv.err.ee/arhiiv.php?id=138028

P.S. The show is in Estonian, of course.
May 3, 2013
If you are interested in Robots, check out the non-profit Robot Garden community workshop at www.robotgarden.org and http://www.meetup.com/Robot-Garden/. It was co-founded by Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics (www.svrobo.org) and others from Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Labs. It is located in the i-GATE Innovation Hub facility in Livermore sponsored by the labs and local governments.

You are right. The time for robots is here. Check out the free IEEE Robots iPAD app as described at http://robotsapp.spectrum.ieee.org/ or the robots shown at the recent Robot Block Party event at Stanford University as described at:
http://www.svrobo.org/2013/04/15/robot-block-party-recap/ and

Given that today's SmartPhone has the power to fly a 777 at the cost of a few hundred dollars, combined with 3D printing, UAV and imaging technologies, MEMS sensors, AI software, wireless networking, rapid innovation techniques, as Scott suggests, anything is possible today. It is up to use the technologies for the betterment of mankind.

If you are interested in participating in building a positive future helped by Robots, come join us at Tri-Valley's family-friendly Robot Garden. Here we teach 12-year-olds to use hammers) and other more modern tools) to build and be the masters of Robots, not their furniture.

Greg Thompson, gregt@alum.mit.edu
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 3, 2013
In my head (and I suspect many other people's) there's a big difference between a 'machine' and a robot.

There's already golf ball gathering machines. I don't see why they couldn't adapt one for tennis balls.

Or just build a sloping gutter around your tennis court so they roll back to you when they go out of court.
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
May 2, 2013
I would think a slight adjustment of the vacuum cleaner robot would pick up the tennis balls.

[I'm seeing something like the vacuum robot with a spatula on the front to flip tennis balls into a wire basket on its back. It would also need to "see" the tennis balls and not follow a programmed path like vacuum robots do. -- Scott]
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 1, 2013
"I could also imagine a robot walking the family dog when everyone else is working or in school."

So, what's the point of having a dog as opposed to, say, paying a monthly sum to the dog asylum to care for their dogs?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 1, 2013
The Jetsons got our hopes up years ago. When it dawned on us that wasn't becoming a reality any time soon we got jaded. Sure, there's potential for robotics to overwhelmingly change our lives, but I've heard 'wolf' being cried too many times to get excited.
May 1, 2013
When wealth creation is no longer based on human effort and merit it will be time to rethink everything in the economy. This could go very right or very wrong. What scares me about it is I don't trust politicians to get it right but that's who will decide. It should be feared for this reason.

It should also be feared because a robot driven "utopia" will give humans very little incentive to expand, improve, or evolve.

I am reminded of Poul Anderson's science fiction.
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 1, 2013
I want a robot that could help me deciphering captchas. That would make my life so much easier.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 1, 2013
I agree that robots will become a reality and the market will be huge. Whomever builds the most will become the GM of the 21st century. Everyone will want one. They'll be laughably unsophisticated at first, akin to what Pong was in the video realm. And they'll be expensive. I can see the price falling but not much beyond what a decent automobile costs. Price will be relative on how many functions it will perform. In the end humans will finally get what they've always wanted. Slaves without the guilt.
Apr 30, 2013
Where did you come up with that $5,000 estimate? I don't believe that a robot such as you describe would be as inexpensive as that - at least until demand allowed those robots to be produced in large enough quantites for economies of scale to kick in. And even then . . .

But I forgot about the cash input of government. If the robots are called 'Green' robots, then the government will pump millions of dollars into the company. Then, the company's founders will get rich off the taxpayers, and then the company will go bankrupt.

Just like Solyndra ($528 million) and Fisker ($529 million). OK, Fisker hasn't declared bankruptcy yet, but it's about to, particularly since they are taking a loss of roughly $557,000 on each car they produce. Said cars look great but unfortunately don't run very well.

Or how about that bankrupt battery company, Ener1? That was just a tiny loss to the taxpayers of $118.5 million - chump change. Or that other bankrupt battery company A123, that the Chinese bought for $256 million? No security risk there, is there? After all, the Obama administration only gave that company $249 million. This is the same administration that can't find any money to pay for White House tours, or fund the air traffic control system.

So here's an idea for Scott: start the robot company yourself. Then the Obama administration will pour half a billion dollars into, oh, let's say the Scott Adams' Green R.U.R. company (if you don't get that, Google it). Scott will then produce robots at $5,000 each, losing roughly $25,000 per robot until his company goes bankrupt. He, of course, pays himself a salary of $500,000, so he doesn't get hurt.

Why will this plan not work? Scott is not a Obama bundler. He has not contributed large amounts of money, or arranged for large amounts of money to be given to the president's campaign. Therefore, he will not receive taxpayer largess, as he is not a crony of the administration.

However, I think Scott has hit on something for, oh, perhaps the ex-CEO of Solyndra, or the soon to be ex-CEO of Fisker, to launch as their next green initiative. Make sure the robots only use clean energy. No coal-burning robots or gasoline-powered robots. No robots powered by natural gas obtained by fracking. Keep saying the word 'green' in every other sentence. What could possibly go wrong?

Go wrong for them, I mean. Not for us. We'll just keep on paying - for nothing.

-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 30, 2013
Take this, robot boy!
Give them a few years and they will be playing Mozart.

(For anyone who wonders: I saw them live. There is no playback, they are actually playing the music on standard musical instruments)
Apr 30, 2013
Robots start small - like the vacuum cleaner.

They automate the really repetitive stuff - like most jobs.

It is estimated that 50% of US jobs could be replaced by automation, using current technology.

I believe this is an underestimation, caused by the researchers not being far sighted enough about new methods of working. For example who would have forseen that there would be no need for record shops, magazines, travel agents or real estate brokers. Service jobs will be next.

It will then be possible to make obscene amounts of money, without needing to employ many people.

The question is - will we continue to try to stretch the tax system to cover the massive number of unemployed (driving the wealthy offshore) or will there be a new system?

And if everyone is unemployed, will there be demand for the new robot produced goods?
Apr 30, 2013
I like how you ask for topics but then are like !$%*! it. I wanna talk about robots."

That's what I asked for. I want you to talk about what you are interested in. It will make you happier and will probably create better posts. Just be to throw in a Stinky Bathturd every now and then.
Apr 30, 2013
Your tennis ball problem doesn't need a robot. Just tilt the court 1 degree toward one corner and the balls will collect themselves.
Apr 30, 2013
Hmm quote 'In an earlier post I asked which topics you prefer me to blog about. I was surprised that the topic of robots wasn’t popular.'

then you proceed to blog about robots..........

so why ask us in the first place?
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 30, 2013
I agree with the comments that there are technical and legal hurdles that will push out the adoption of physically large robots well beyond 5 years.

As a stepping stone, I envision smaller and less expensive robots performing more basic security and assistance tasks. For example, when traveling, you might want to command the personal robot at your home, through your smartphone, to look around and verify everything's OK. It might be programmed to alert you and send pictures if it detects a possible intruder. The one at your elderly parent's home might check on them and maybe allow you to converse with them. When you're home, it might assist by taking commands like "find my car keys" or "where's my iPad"?

My guess is that at least some of these won't walk or roll, but will fly. Small quadrotor helicopters are already equipped with cameras and performing amazing maneuvers under remote control. Obstacles for ground-based robots (e.g. steps, stairs, furniture) are no issue for flying robots, and they are only going to get smarter and more integrated with the internet.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 30, 2013
The killer robot app is the killer robot. Within 5 years we will have autonomous drones raining death on unsuspecting unsubs.

I personally will be heavily investing in anti-drone technology since the profit margins will be much higher and paranoia always overcomes good sense.
Apr 30, 2013
@befuddled123, Anyone -- even kids -- that try to out-think or "game" a robot will succeed. We're a very, very long way from AI that would be capable of managing kids.

@chubbymike, the cool thing with robots is that once they start becoming available, and assuming that you have decent development tools and some standards to start with, there will be millions of people writing programs for robots. We'll throw away bad programs, people will collaborate on important tasks and behaviors, and robots will have thousands or millions of capabilities in just a few years.

@hbmindia, Our world is pretty much designed for humans. While that doesn't mean that our robots have to be anthropomorphic, there are obvious advantages. The roomba, as a specific example, isn't very versatile, and no amount of software, sensors, or CPU will change that. An Anthropomorphic robot should hypothetically have physical access to a full range of human capabilities, limited primarily by software (and maybe not that, with telepresence).
Apr 30, 2013
Here's the problem with the current state of Robotics - the software that doesn't seem that complicated becomes a huge part of the price. My company could build your tennis ball retrieving robot, but because it would be a one-off all the R&D and software cost would have to be rolled into the first unit. It would be $22k. It would pay for itself after a mere 3000 lessons.
Apr 30, 2013
All I got out of this was that Scott has higher standards for bathroom cleaning than for childcare.
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