Run, robot, run Essay

“He’s obedient, docile and great with kids,” sid thesalesman, ignoring my quizzical look.

“He doesn’t shed anyhair or need to be housebroken.” But I couldn’t imagine warming up to a trim package ofbrightly colored plastic and metal. And the care and feeding of apersonal robot wasn’t likely to be a simple matter. Back in theearly days of personal computers, I recalled that proud owners, whiletrying to think of something useful to do with their new electronictoys, had to contend with balky circuits, bug-ridden programs andunintelligible instruction manuals. Now we’re in the early days of personal robots. More than twodozen companies manufacture them, but most of these machines are littlemore than toys. They’re useful for starting conversations,attracting customers or learning about robots, but they are not yeteffective servants, tutors or security guards. Some are merelycomputers or stereos on wheels.

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Even the best robots, neatly packagedamalgams of clever industrial technology, are still rather primitive andexpensive. They have trouble climbing stairs and opening windows, andthey understand only the simplest commands. Nevertheless, robots of one kind or another were stepping, rollingor crawling everywhere at last month’s Consumer Electronics Showheld in Las Vegas. It was hard to escape their beady, brightly blinking”eyes,” their modulated, metallic chatter and their gooly,glowing grins. Hubot, manufactured by Hubotics, Inc., in Carlsbad, Calif.

, andbilled as the “ultimate intelligent appliance of the’80s,” is one example of off-the-shelf industrial technologypackaged to appeal to the upscale consumer. With its television-screenface, de rigueur flashing lights and a computer keyboard that pulls outfrom its stomach, Hubot is designed both to compute and to entertain.Built on a triangular base for stability and to fit discreetly into acorner when it isn’t whirring along at a foot per second, the unitwill eventually include an optional vaccum cleaner. Nevertheless, at$3,500, Hubot, even as a walking, talking burglar alarm and wakeupservice, isn’t a bargain. Another approach is to focus on one particular talent.

Hearoid,put together by TTC of Carson, Calif., contains a voice recognitioncomputer first used in some high-tech telephones. After a trainingsession, this midget robot can understand 12 spoken commands. The robotalso features a built-in cassette tape deck, which it can stop and starton command. At one-tenth the price, Hearoid is cheaper than Hubot, butit also does far less. When I pointed out some of the robot’sshortcomings, one TTC official asked, “How much technology are youwilling to pay for?” One of the old timers is Hero I. The Heath Co. of Benton Harbor,Mich.

, has produced about 10,000 of these boxy robots, half of them inkit form. Hero I’s new cousin, Hero Jr., comes not only assembledbut also with a built-in personality. When bored, it can go to sleep ormutter in Roblish, a random agglomeration of word segments, until it”thinks” of something to do.

Unless directed, the robotnormally wanders about randomly. A bump into a wall elicits a “Whoput that here?” from the somewhat absent-minded machine. A seriesof plug-in cartridges extend Hero Jr.’s repetoire of songs,routines, phrases and games. Despite Hero’s success, part of the current excitement in thehome robot market is that no single robot design dominates the field.

Many manufacturers are making sure that the inner workings of theirrobots are open so that any one can make changes or improvements. Thisflexibility is one lesson that robot makers have learned from thepersonal computer industry. Such modular robots evolve and grow withthe step-by-step progress of their masters.

As their owners learn more,the robots get smarter. Some market surveys estimate that the manufacture and sale ofpersonal robots may be a $2 billion industry by 1990. However, salesnow total only about $50 million a year, and robot manufacturers facevery high development costs. Because of a shortage of capital, somecompanies can’t even afford to build all of the robots for whichthey have taken orders, let alone to incorporate new technology. Still,there has been progress. Less than five years ago, almost allcommercially available robots were little more than mechanical arms usedin factories. High-technology companies also can’t resist tinkering withrobot designs just to show off their expertise, sometimes at greatexpense.

Japan’s Sumitomo Electric Co., for example, has developeda mechanical musician that sight-reads music with its video camera headwhile banging the keys and treading the pedals of a standard electricorgan. A Hitachi robot maps its surroundings and compares them to itsown map so that it can navigate around obstacles. Toshiba’s Amootyclambers up and down stairs. Denning Mobile Robotics, Inc., of Woburn, Mass., however, isserious about its sentry robot, which may cost about $40,000 whenit’s ready next summer.

This 300-pound wonder incorporates asophisticated self-navigation system that would allow it to patrolwarehouses and prisons or to wash floors in supermarkets and airports. With such costly hardware wandering about, there’s a risk ofunintentionally ordering a robot to go over a cliff or into a brickwall. The computer software company Brainworks, Inc., has the answer inthe form of an entertaining program called ChipWits.

The user learns toprogram a video robot to cope with a variety of hazards thrown up on thescreen of a Macintosh computer. Any simulated collisions are easilycorrected, and the screen robot goes on to further adventures. Most home robots are now marketed as teaching aids–to show whatlarger, more sophisticated industrial robots can do. Rather thanfulfilling the dream of owning a cheap, mechanical servant, theydemonstrate that the appetite for new gadgets, no matter how primitive,never seems to be satiated. But at the Consumer Electronics Show, thebiggest attraction was no robot. An actor who out-roboted the robotsgot away with flirtations that normally only Robert Redford could havemanaged.


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