June 28, 2006

Robots Sharing Human Spaces

In science fiction, robots share the world with people, moving in the same spaces that humans move and reacting to the same inputs humans do. This was convincingly displayed by Michael Crichton in his 1984 movie Runaway. The movie wasn't very good, but the robots were cool!

The robots in Runaway have always been more fantasy than science fiction. But advances in robotics have been moving very quickly and I think we can expect to see big changes in our lifetimes.

To get robots to move through the spaces that humans inhabit, they need to have the same mobility that humans do. And humans don't move on wheels over roads, they walk up hills, over snow, and across rocky terrain. To do this, robots need legs. And legs are hard to make work.

An amazing example of the advances in robotic legs in the BigDog by Boston Dynamics. Preston Lerner, in a recent article in LiveScience, describes BigDog this way:
Developed by Boston Dynamics with funding from the U.S. military, the BigDog prototype is arguably the world's most ambitious legged robot. Its stability and awareness of its own orientation make it the first robot that can handle the unknown challenges of the battlefield. The Great Dane–size 'bot can trot more than three miles an hour, climb inclines of up to 45 degrees, and carry up to 120 pounds—even in rough terrain impenetrable to wheeled or tracked vehicles. But this one is just a puppy; Boston Dynamics expects the next iteration, ready this summer, to be at least twice as fast and carry more than twice as much.
Check out amazing video of BigDog in action at the end of the article or here on YouTube.

BigDog is remote controlled; it doesn't react to the same inputs humans do. But the vehicles in the DARPA Grand Challenge (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) are autonomous, driving cross country using only their sensors. Five vehicles finished the 132 mile cross country race in 2005. In 2007, the DARPA Urban Challenge will be to complete a 60 mile urban course while obeying traffic laws and dealing with other traffic on the street. These vehicles are leading the way to robots that can share spaces with humans. Wikipedia says:
The U.S. Department of Defense has permitted DARPA to offer prize money ($1 million) to facilitate robotic development, with the ultimate goal of making one third of ground military forces automated by 2015.
How close are we to sharing our world with autonomous robots? By comparison, the forerunner of the internet was the ARPANET developed by the Advanced Research Projects Administration, the forerunner of DARPA (DARPA is funding both BigDog and the Grand Challenge). The first ARPANET link was established in 1969. The first web site was put online in 1991. Google went public in 2004. Where is the robot industry on that time line? Closer to ARPANET than Google. But both were in my lifetime. How long will it be before military, industrial, and ultimately consumer robots share our lives? I expect that in my lifetime as well. Posted by georgegmacdonald at June 28, 2006 10:18 AM