June 1, 2005
The Robots Have Arrived!.. (Sort Of)
Meet Roomba's daughter, Scooba. Scooba is a floor-scrubbing "robot" that will be available in time for the Christmas holidays. (I have put "robot" in parentheses because I suspect that within ten or fifteen years, we will consider these ultra-crude, first generation "robots" to be automatic machines in the same sense as automatic washing machines or automatic car washers.) Scooba's price hasn't been announced, but I suspect that it will fall in the neighborhood of $300. Scooba should be more popular than Roomba because Scooba sucks up its dirty wash water, something that floor mops can't as readily do.
Two-Dimensionally Guided, "Bump-and-Bounce" First Generation Robots
These are first-generation, automatic machines, designed to navigate in two dimensions by bumping and bouncing.
Two-Dimensionally Guided, Planned-Route, Second Generation Robots
A second-generation of ground-based "robots" may already exist, exemplified by Electrolux' Trilobyte vacuum cleaner that maps out the room with ultrasonic sensors for 45 seconds, and then proceeds to vacuum the floor in a methodical way. Right now, the Trilobyte costs $1,400, so its price is a bit steep. However, given competition and a few years (2010?), prices should drop into the few-hundred-dollar price range. In the meantime, Friendly Robotics' Robomow and Toro's iMow are... uh... laying the groundwork...? for automatic lawn mowers.
In the meantime, the military is adopting robotic devices en masse. Our armed forces will be rubbing shoulders with them on a daily basis, and will be brining home stories about them to Mom and Dad "and their sisters and their brothers and their cousins and their aunts". The Japanese are developing numerous kinds of robots, not least of which are for companionship.
Robotics Goes Over a Waterfall
At some point, a major company will start manufacturing and selling robotic devices to the general public, and then, once widespread acceptance, mass production, and competition sets in, progress might well begin to occur at a feverish pace.
Manipulator-Equipped Robots Utilizing 3-D Vision.
Another class of second-generation robots will be robots with 3-D vision, possessing arms and grasping members. In addition, there will be innumerable other types of robots, such as semi-autonomous military and space exploration robots. Trying to imagine and catalog these is, possibly, like trying to categorize applications for personal computers back in 1977. Although I hit upon a few of today's applications in a vague sense, I didn't begin to imagine, in 1977, the myriad ways in which personal computers are used today.
Once this robotics revolution passes "over a waterfall" (perhaps between now and 2010), as did personal computers with the introduction of the IBM personal computer in 1981, robotics might become a very rapidly moving field, like the Internet in its earlier days. At the same time, there will be generation after generation of robotic devices, as improvements occur.
The introduction of quarter-teraflops chips (The Cell), together with a two teraflops PlayStation 3, suggests the possibility of hardware speeds that could support simian intelligence within the foreseeable future (10 years?). One of the major benefits of a robotic mass market would be the fact that it would become profitable to sell chips optimized for machine vision and for other cognitive functions.
Of course, another prerequisite is adequate memory. right now, Walmart's cheapest RAM runs $140 a gigabyte, with the possibility of $100 a gigabyte on sale by rear's end. At that rate, RAM would cost about $100,000 a terabyte. (I'm citing Walmart's prices because they don't use rebates.)
Walmart's best price for disk memory is $600 a terabyte, or perhaps, $500 a terabyte by year's end. That would amount to $500,000 a petabyte. If, because of its far higher level of reliability, much less "dry", silicon memory is required to emulate the "wet" memory of the human brain, then that number might drop to, viz., 200 terabytes, or $100,000.
Assuming a continuation of Moore's law, it would take 30 more years for RAM memory to drop in price to $100 a terabyte, and for disk memory to decline to $100 for 200 terabytes. A great deal could be done with optimized present-day hardware. Also, it might be that future robots could be wirelessly connected to a central supercomputer, with lower-level functions such as visual mapping and locomotion performed onboard, and memories accessed from a central computer.
Moravec and SEEGRID Corporation
So what has happened to the robotics pioneer, Hans Moravec? Dr. Moravec and Pittsburgh physician, Dr. Scott Friedman, have launched a company called "SEEGRID". Its first product is the visually-guided, automated pallet truck ("SmartTruck" Dr. Moravec envisioned in his December, 2000, Re-Evolving Mind paper and in other, previous papers.)