Friday, 01 August 2014
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Robot butlers? Stick to the fantasy

I always find it a little bit odd when commentators refer to robot butlers as a staple of science fiction. I’ve been reading and watching science fiction for over 40 years, and I can’t think of a single example of a robot butler. The closest I can get are the various labour-saving devices invented by Nick Park’s hapless Yorskhire tinkerer Wallace, and frankly nobody sane would actually want any of those anywhere near them.

But there’s clearly a buzz around robots of all types at the moment, with James Dyson’s large invetsment into a robotics lab at Imperial College and Google’s spending spree among the robotics sector. Domestic robots have previously been more the preserve of the Japanese, stemming from concerns about their ageing population — there, the key application is clearly as devices to help elderly and infirm people live independently. In the US and Europe, defence and emergency response applications have led the way. Both types take industrial robots as their starting point. And as we saw in our poll last week, opinions differ about the state of research and where the end-point might be.

Asimo

Honda’s Asimo robot: cute, but he won’t clean your flat and he makes lousy toast.

James Dyson thinks we might be ten years off domestic robots. This seems to be very optimistic. Although autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners have been available for some years, they aren’t actually very good at vacuuming (and judging by the internet, are far more useful for taking pets for a ride around the home). The prospect of a single, multi-functional robot home-help seems as far-fetched as ever: homes are designed for humans, so human-like locomotion would be a must, with manipulators that can get into the same position as hands and perform similar functions. We’re a long way away from that, even in the most advanced labs. We’d also need much more advanced machine vision to navigate around and identify things and people. And how would people and machine communicate? By speech? Add a natural language processor and voice synthesiser to the list.

”What would a robot on the battlefield actually do?”

So would we see humanoid robots on the battlefield? The question here must surely be: why would we? Is an upright, bipedal, two-armed robot really the most efficient form for a battlefield? Why devote all those resources to stabilising a top-heavy form when something closer to the ground with more points of contact can get around more easily? And anyway, what would a robot on the battlefield actually do? Interact with humans? Go up against enemy robots? The answers to these questions always seem worryingly vague.

A humanoid search-and-rescue robot makes a bit more sense, for similar reasons to domestic ones — it can access and clear spaces that humans can fit into, opening doors and so on. If something that’s human-shaped and moves like a human can get into a constrained space, then a trapped human can get out.

Ultimately, the multifunctional robot is a bit of a tall order in any case. Industrial robots are successful because they can do essentially one thing very well, over and over again with no variation. Maybe that’s what we should be looking at with domestic robots — lots of small, very limited units, each doing their own thing. But that doesn’t really sound all that useful. In fact, it’s a bit Wallace. And he needed Gromit to clean up after his devices; uncannily intelligent and dextous dogs are even more tricky than robot butlers.

There’s clearly going to be a role for automation at home and in conflict and disaster; probably in hospitals and workplaces as well. But we need to be realistic about what machines can do, why we want them to do these tasks, and how they should do it; and we should also be realistic about what demands we place on technology, considering the actual state of the art. We don’t live in a science-fiction world; and what with most science-fiction worlds being dystopias, we should probably all be very thankful for that.


Readers' comments (7)

  • I afraid to admit (as a Yorkshireman) that the brilliant Wallace and Gromit are in fact from Lancashire, as is Nick Park. Their favourite cheese is from Yorkshire though (Wensleydale)! Sorry Stuart.

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  • Kryten, Red Dwarf, legendary .

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  • How could I have forgotten. "It does mean changing the bulb, sir."

  • Robin Williams, Millenium man. Robot butler evolving into bio-mechanical 'person' through technology advances. Has to start somewhere !

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  • A film so bad it had spontaneously erased itself from my memory.

  • Marvin (the paranoid android) from Hitchhiker's Guide?

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  • There he was, brain the size of a planet, and you call him a butler.

  • I laughed along with the adults in the family when I was only just a kid about the landing of men on our Moon. Not only did it happen but my own Mother helped to build it. So I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. I won't laugh anymore but keep a keen eye on what is happening.

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  • In the cartoon called "The Jetsons" they had a robot maid named 'Rosie'

    In the movie "I, Robot" they had robots doing all types of human jobs. Taxi Drivers, Desk Receptionists, and even Butlers. (I agree that a humanoid robot driving a taxi is not very practicle as much as a taxi car that needs no driver would. All that would be needed is to just input your destination as if you were doing on a GPS Navagation Device, and have the vehicle automatically take you where you need to go without needing a human to control it.)

    However, those are a few science fiction things that do have robotic butlers. For a guy who claims to have read and watched science fiction for 40 years - you sure have missed quite a bit of examples of robotic butlers. Which makes me wonder how much of the rest of your article was not really valid as well.

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  • A discussion about robots needs to include the fact that there are autonomous and semi-autonomous robots (if fact, there are several other classifications). Army SWORDS Talon robots have already been fighting in Afghanistan. A robot named Pioneer wandered through the deadly quiet Chernobyl reactor analyzing irradiated structures. Kompai, a robot companion for the sick and elderly, asked its owner "Where does it hurt?" and then e-mailed the symptoms to a doctor. The Library of Congress' SOMA robot digitized priceless historical images, sounds and films. An unassisted robotic surgeon corrected a heart arrhythmia - by all accounts, its work was better than above-average (designers believe that robots can replace half of all surgeons within 15 years). To round out this discussion, check out this article (http://tinyurl.com/pdfj5sj) and these papers: http://tinyurl.com/mzo4ms6 And let's not exclude the Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) from the discussion; some of them are no larger than insects and have already been used in nuclear reactors and disaster sites. Technology is progressing exponentially; robots are standing on that curve. I'm guessing that in 20 or so years they'll be doing everything we say they can't, and many things we can't even imagine, today.

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