TCS Daily


R2D2 vs. C3PO

By Edward B. Driscoll - June 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Just in time for summer, Hollywood is releasing Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest Terminator techno-opus, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. If Dr. Joseph F. Engelberger has his way, machines will be rising that much sooner, with a robot - perhaps a few of them - in your home by the end of the decade, but they'll be much more benign than Arnold's T-800 and his counterparts.

Engelberger describes himself as "the nominal 'father of robotics'", and it's certainly a reasonable title, considering that his company installed the first robots on an assembly line for General Motors in 1961. And while factory robots have grown to an $8.5 billion industry, with over 200,000 robots now in service, Engelberger believes the most pressing need for a robot is as an aide to the elderly and the infirm, the need for which could dwarf the number of robots in factories.

To this end, Engelberger's second robot company has already made inroads into hospitals, via his HelpMate robot. Ever see a Discovery Channel documentary about robots, which has a shot of a squat, square four-foot high robot transferring medicine or food from one section of a hospital to another? That's one of Engelberger's, built by the second robot company he's founded (and since sold), HelpMate Robotics, Inc. (His first was Unimation, founded in the early 1960s, when Engelberger and his then-associate, George C. Devol, dubbed his early assembly line robots "Unimates", and Devol patented his techniques for building parts transfer machines.)

Both of Engelberger's corporations were profitable enough to be acquired by larger firms. Today, Engelberger wants to start a third corporation with the purpose of putting a robot in your home. "My big axe to grind is that I want to see the personal service robot be something that will be in the home, that will support a homebound person, that will allow a person to live independently longer than they could, and help them avoid the nursing home, and to do it for very, very, very much less money than would be involved in a nursing home, and certainly much less money than is involved in full time, live-in help."

Engelberger isn't looking to build the robot equivalent of a home healthcare aide. His home healthcare robot, like his HelpMate robot, would fetch objects such as food from the refrigerator, and medicine from the medicine cabinet, and monitor its infirm owner. "There are things like that which are relatively simple. You know, people say, 'you might not be able to do this or that.' Well, I don't know how to have a robot bathe a person - not now; the technology is just not good enough. Probably can't dress a person, either. But it could do enough that a homebound person could get away with about a couple of hours a day of a loving relative, or maybe someone from the visiting nurses association, and that's the goal."

How Much Will It Cost?

Engelberger believes that "We can have a full-fledged, mobile, sensate, articulate, two-armed robot commercially available at an attractive price. An 'attractive price' means to me that third party payers will supply the average person. In other words, an insurance company or Medicare." Engelberger is shooting for his robots to have a lease price of $500 to $600, about the same as it costs to lease a luxury automobile today.

Along similar lines, Engelberger estimates that gearing up to build his robot would cost less than it costs to gear an assembly line in Detroit. "It wouldn't cost as much as building a Cadillac. It's smaller, and the only thing that's different is that it's got a helluva lot more software, and software you only do once."

The Market Is Vast

Of course, it's on those assembly lines where robots have made their greatest inroads. It's only been with recent products such as the Sony Aibo robot dog and the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaner that mobile robots have gotten a toehold in the home.

Engelberger believes that's ripe for change. "Sure there will be people who want a robot around the house to mix drinks for their guests", but the big market for robots is in service to an aging population. "So the swing, I think, would go to service activities. You know, there are only 18 percent of us in this country that make things, the rest of us are in service. And therefore the market is vast, if you consider that the fastest growing age in the United States is 85. And most 85-year-old people have some kind of handicap."

To that end, Engelberger recently allowed his name to be used on the trophy prize in the DIY Network's new series, Robot Rivals. He sees the show, which features teams of college students building robots to solve problems, as doing much to promote the practical applications of robots.

"The robotics industry is going to continue to need new participants - bright young people - to join the fray. Contrary to many areas of scientific endeavor, there just is no plateau that we're going to have to get to. I'm sitting here, pointing at myself and I say that the perfect robot is one of these - and that's a hard job! But we'll get better and better at it, and I think that programs like this are going to help fill the pipeline with students who will deliver the line of necessary of hardware."

The Tip Of The Iceberg

The recent glut of Robot TV shows on cable, and the introduction of the Aibo and the Roomba are merely the tip of the robot iceberg. Evolution Robotics Inc. of Pasadena, California has created standardized robot kits for hobbyists, based around their robot operating systems. Their mantra is that robots are where computers were in the late 70s: a hobbyist's market, eager for a standardized platform that would put the emphasis on new applications, rather than simply trying to get a device built from scratch.

While it's far too soon to tell if their strategy will be successful, the key to it is their creation of a robot operating system that they hope will be the equivalent of what Windows is to personal computers: a standardized system that applications can be built on, rather than reinventing the wheel every time a new robot is designed.

Software truly is the key to a successful robot, according to Engelberger, who feels that while research into such areas as two legged mobility and facial expression is useful, they may be dead-ends for building practical home robots. "You have the Japanese spending millions of dollars to make a Asimo [a human-shaped walking robot developed by Honda], and then you have a lot of people working on facial expression. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not necessary."

Engelberger also feels that much research into building robots that walk (such as Honda's Asimo) is a dead-end. "I don't want to see a two-legged robot. I feel very strongly against legs. Now that sounds odd, especially when so many Japanese researchers are making legged robots, but everything is wrong. See, the legged robot has all its battery power on it shoulders, which makes it very unstable. A wheeled robot has all its battery power well below its ass, down near its wheels, and it becomes very stable."

But one aspect of anthropomorphizing is important for tasks: arms. "You need two arms for a number of tasks. You need sensor perception - vision, tactile, auditory. "So it's two-armed, it's mobile, but probably with wheels, and sensate, and articulate." It will also have voice recognition, if Engelberger has his way. Speaker-specific voice recognition is quite difficult today because the software can't recognize a myriad of differing accents and inflections. "But if you were a personal servant to two or three people in the home, you would know all their accents, and you'd know all their voiceprints, and you'd be able to accept commands that are quite sophisticated."

Will people accept a robot with the aesthetics of a rolling refrigerator in their home? Of his hospital robots, Engelberger says, "We put stripes on it, like a volunteer nurse. Running around the hospital, and going up and down on the elevators and going to all the departments, it's just amazing how children and even grownups will anthropomorphize it, because it speaks, and because it moves, and it's non-threatening." (The anthropomorphizing of non-human appearing robots holds true in the movies as well-the squat, fireplug-shaped R2D2, who speaks in nothing but beeps and boops, is a far more beloved character to most Star Wars fans, even though C3PO speaks English and has a much more human appearance.)

Like the robots in Star Wars, robots back on planet Earth will probably have many different appearances - and functions. And some of those robots could indeed be rolling into your home in the not too distant future. If indeed robots are in the position that personal computers were in the 1970s, the next twenty years truly could be the rise of the machines.
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