Toy story

5 min read

Robosapien creator Mark Tilden believes artificial intelligence is over-rated. Jon Excell reports on the man who turned robotics on its head.

Mark Tilden is an unlikely hate figure. The effusive, Indiana Jones hat-wearing scientist has brought joy to millions, attracted the kind of fan base usually reserved for pop stars, and makes everyone he meets laugh. But next month, desperate parents trawling the toy shops for the latest must-have toy, might feel that the UK-born Canadian roboticist has a lot to answer for.

That is because Tilden happens to be the creator of Robosapien: the walking, talking and belching biped that has literally had last-minute Christmas shoppers scrapping in the aisles. This Christmas promises to continue the trend with Robosapien Media, the world’s first robot MP3 player, recently hitting the shelves and gearing itself up for a busy festive season.

Tilden, head of R&D at Hong Kong toy company WowWee Robotics, took an unusual route into the toy industry. After graduating from Waterloo university in Ontario, Canada, he began working for the US government’s Los Alamos labs on robot projects for everyone from NASA to the National Security Agency.

Spotting an opportunity to develop his ideas for a mass market and operate beyond the strictures of academia, he left Los Alamos in 2001 to pursue his robotic dreams in the toy business. Five years and 30,000,000 robots later, Tilden has arguably done more than anyone else alive to realise the great sci-fi dream of welcoming robots into our homes. This success is largely due to a low-cost approach to robotics that emphasises mechanical ability over the need for a central processor.

Throughout the 20th century there were two major approaches to robotics, explained Tilden: top down and bottom up. The top down approach was popularised by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who envisioned the creation of ‘the positronic brain’ — a powerful computer that would endow robots with something akin to human consciousness. Tilden favours the alternative: ‘98 per cent of all creatures on this planet live very well without any brain to speak of: all the insects, all the molluscs and most of the politicians. I’m the king of bottom up: build something nicely mechanical and then try to teach it to learn English.’

At the heart of this is Tilden’s so-called Nervous net technology — the use of what he terms ‘non-linear analogue control systems’ that emulate the neurons in animal nervous systems and solve real-time problems difficult to address with microprocessors. ‘In the simplest electronic array, Nervous nets give you the maximum possible complexity and maximum competence. I’m not talking about AI. It can’t do any maths for you. But it can make your robot walk, even on carpet, and even if one of its legs is covered with gum.’

Tilden is scathing about the credence given to the Asimov vision, describing it as a ‘guess by a fiction writer that has acquired a status effect’.

‘Asimov’s three laws are: protect humans, obey humans, and then look after yourself. I’ve built robots like that and all they do is sit in the middle of the room because they’re so scared of doing anything that might upset you. My three laws are: protect your ass, feed your ass and look for better real estate!’

His argument is that by building machines that are fundamentally selfish and motivated only by their own survival instincts, it is possible to develop useful systems. The approach has attracted its share of critics within the robotics community. Adopting the tone of those who see his work as robotic heresy, Tilden asked: ‘Where’s the AI? How does it run Linux? Why doesn’t it run Windows? How is Bill Gates going to make money if the damn thing doesn’t need a supercomputer to run its brain?’

One of the keys to the success of the Robosapien is Tilden’s extremely efficient mechanical design. ‘I found out that there’s power in the incredible crystalline angles of mother nature,’ he said. ‘Structurally, you will see that all my robots are based upon 15°, 30°, 60° — the odd angles of mother nature rather than the square blocky angles of the Cartesian co-ordinate system.’

The mechanical efficiency of his robots is further enhanced with the liberal use of resonant structures, which is another concept borrowed from nature. Open up a Robosapien, he said, and you will see a mass of springs, levers and cantilevers, all of which help give the device a 28-hour battery life on regular batteries.

The inherent efficiency of these structures has enabled Tilden to eliminate the need to constantly rely on servo-motors, an energy-intensive approach that has contributed to the hefty price tag of rival robots.

‘Sony’s Aibo consumes more power standing still than it does when walking because it’s holding up itself by set point design,’ claimed Tilden. ‘It’s one of the most incredibly sad myths — and still taught today in every engineering course across the world — that a set point servo system is essentially what you want for simple engineering design. It’s nonsense. You do it at such an energy and mechanical cost that you end up getting nothing more than those strange toys that the Japanese keep playing around with — those things cost 2,000 quid.’

There is no doubt that Tilden’s robots work. Thirty million satisfied customers are adequate testimony to that but exactly how they work is somewhat harder to explain. His creations are based on a principle known as non-linear dynamics — a situation where something does not give you the same condition twice in reality and is extremely hard to model digitally.

‘The bottom up approach is “let’s push it and see if it works”,’ he explained. ‘The awful problem with my stuff is that it is based on a mathematics that is not readily understood. It is intrinsically complex. If you build it, it works but if you try to study it you need a PhD in non-differential, differential, hyperbolic geometric doo-dahs!’

Finding a way to develop robots that do not cost a fortune has not exactly endeared Tilden to many of his fellow roboticists. ‘A lot of my ex-colleagues really hate me, because you used to be able to get a good million dollars a year from NASA for studying that sort of crap and now you can go down and pick it up from Argos.’

With Robosapien Media likely to take Christmas by storm, Tilden and his team are now applying the finishing touches to Robosapien version 3 — a four-foot high biped with functional knees that, according to Tilden, is able to walk up and down stairs.

His group is also in the early stages of developing man-sized robots that could be used as the basis of a new telepresence, teletourism and teleshopping industry. Tilden said that, using these systems, it will be possible to stay in London and rent a human-sized robot to go off into the streets of Kyoto shopping, or even check out holiday resorts via robot before booking up your holiday. He claimed that his group has already developed a man-sized robot for such a system but that after crashing through the glass window of the office next door there are still some bugs to be ironed out.

For someone with a view of the future that many would regard as far-fetched, Tilden is somewhat scathing about futurists. He does not, he insists, talk about anything that he isn’t working on. ‘The futurist always says that in 10 years’ time we will have flying cars, honeymoons in orbit and robots in every home. I hear that now, I heard it 10 years ago, and I heard it 10 years before that. They promised me that back in 1964 when we were still planning on going to the moon. Well I can’t do anything about flying cars and honeymoons in orbit but I can do something about robots in the home.’