A Robotic Update


Political Index

The Eventual Relationship Between Robots and Humans
    My Interest in robotics  (see The Coming "Age of Robotics") is the eventual relationship between machine intelligence and human intelligence. (This is a subject that has been explored by most major science fiction writers, from Isaac Asimov's R Daneel Olivaw to the "overmind" in Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach.)
Fear of "Mechanical Men" Goes Back a Long Way
Humanity has feared mechanical men for centuries, beginning with Montaigne's description of hydraulically actuated animals and homunculi, and Vaucanson's duck ("If it looks like a duck, if it waddles like a duck, and if it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck."), through the weavers rioting against the new power looms, to Frankenstein and Karel Kapek's R. U. R. 
In the Early 1950's, Great Concern Arose About the Imminent Takeover of Human Society by Super-Intelligent Robots.  
In  the 1950's movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still", Klaatu, the human-looking alien, is asked about his robotic servant, Gort. Klaatu replies, "You don't understand. I am the servant. He is the master." Many alarmed conferences were held regarding how to address this menace. Dr. Norbert Wiener, the Harvard mathematical prodigy, wrote a book entitled "The Human Use of Human Beings", warning against the dangers of centralized ownership of robots. Then, too, what would people do with their free time when they no longer had to work for a living?

Klaatu and Gort

But the Computers of the Early 1950's Were Too Slow By a Factor of At Least 10,000,000,000! 
Dr. Hans Moravec realized by the early 1970's that the largest mainframes of that era -- the IBM 360/75's -- were at least 10,000,000 times slower than the human brain. 
He has framed and forecast the emergence of artificial intelligence in the many documents on his website
Dr. Moravec's Timetable for Robotic Development
    In 1991, Dr. Moravec published an article on robotics in the "fact" section of Analog Science Fiction and Fact in which he explained why we didn't already have intelligent robots, and how soon we might expect them. In the article, he forecast the year 2000 as the time frame in which the one-billion-floating-point-operations-per-second speeds that would permit computers to emulate human vision would first appear.

So How Are Things Progressing?
The First (?) Robotic Lawn-Mower Appears

    In the 1940's, some company introduced an automatic lawnmower that used a self-propelled mower tethered by a rope to a drum. The lawnmower mowed around and around until it unwound the rope.
    The would only work where there was open space, such as often exists around a sorporate flagpole.
    Several other attempts were made in succeeding years, including solar-powered lawnmowers.
    In 1995, the Poulan Division of the Electrolux Group introduced a French-invented, solar-powered automatic lawn mower (an electric billy-goat)  selling for $2,500. It mowed randomly inside an area bounded by a wire. (We saw one nibbling away at Epcot in October, 1995.) It wasn't exactly a smashing commercial success, and no other companies developed competing products. It was evidently discontinued since there's no mention of it today on the Poulan website. I read later that it was unreliable, in addition to being very expensive. (One of my concerns at the time was theft, although it had a theft alarm.) 
A Commercially Successful "RoboMower Appears in 1999.
    In 1999, an Israeli company called "Friendly Robotics" introduced RoboMower for $500. Robomower worked like the 1995  Poulan automatic mower, while costing less than 30% as much as the Poulon auto-mower. Toro licensed the design from Friendly Robotics and brought out its own $500 automatic lawn mower, called "iMow."


    RoboMower requires the installation of a boundary wire that defines the periphery of the region to be mowed, together with boundary wires around any areas inside the region to be mowed, such as trees and flower beds. When it's powered up, RoboMower mows a strip along the boundary, and then, when it completes the circuit, begins to mow diagonally across a corner of the lawn. It uses a magnetic compass to help guide it. It can mow for about 4 hours before recharging the batteries. You can buy extra batteries (at $130 for two 12-volt, deep discharge batteries) and an external fast battery charger ($100) so that the lawn mower can be kept in continuous operation. The mower will run for 3 hours on a battery charge, and will cut up to 6,000 square feet of grass (100' by 60') on a 3-hour charge. 
    Batteries typically last between two and three years.
    It's common practice to set up a mowing area for the back yard, and another area for the front yard.
     RoboMower is now on sale here in Huntsville at the city's John Deere dealer, Central lawn and Garden Supply. Today, I went there and talked with their manager. He said that the mower works very well -- is very effective at cutting the grass by itself -- but that durability is a problem. He said that after two or three years, the bushing-type bearings wear out. Also, since a lot of it is made with plastic, its plastic parts can also wear out.
Friendly Robotics and Toro Introduce Second Generation Autonomous Mowers
    RoboMower has recently introduced a new, and much improved, $700 RoboMow RL-800. I asked him if this new model might have been designed for greater durability than the original RL-500 model. He said he didn't know, that that might well be the case.
    He said that robotic equipment is coming on fast, but that the first market lies in the commercial domain. A company can well afford to pay thousands of dollars for a rugged, durable piece of automatic equipment that will eliminate heavy labor costs. He said that computer applications are marginal at this stage, because it costs so much to field them and to debug them, while at the same time companies are having to cut costs to the bone.

But getting back to 1999....
Dr. Moravec Promised to Develop a Visual-Navigation "Powerhead" for Robots in Three Years
    In December, 1999, in an article in Scientific American, Dr. Moravec told of his plans to develop a low-cost visual-navigation "powerhead" for mobile use by the end of 2002. At first, it would be used for commercial applications, but would later become cheap enough for consumer use.
Dr. Moravec Made Good on His Promise By December, 2002
     Dr. Moravec and his associates have founded a company called "Botfactory" to bring his "visual power-head" to market over the next few years to guide industrial platforms such as fork lifts and materiel handling equipment. Such a visual subsystem currently costs about $5,000, but Dr. Moravec anticipates its dropping in price to about $1,000 by 2008. This might still be too expensive for household applications, but if a market develops for this subsystem, prices might decline more rapidly.

To Be Continued