Run, robot, run Essay

“He’s obedient, docile and great with kids,” sid the
salesman, ignoring my quizzical look. “He doesn’t shed any
hair or need to be housebroken.”

But I couldn’t imagine warming up to a trim package of
brightly colored plastic and metal. And the care and feeding of a
personal robot wasn’t likely to be a simple matter. Back in the
early days of personal computers, I recalled that proud owners, while
trying to think of something useful to do with their new electronic
toys, had to contend with balky circuits, bug-ridden programs and
unintelligible instruction manuals.

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Now we’re in the early days of personal robots. More than two
dozen companies manufacture them, but most of these machines are little
more than toys. They’re useful for starting conversations,
attracting customers or learning about robots, but they are not yet
effective servants, tutors or security guards. Some are merely
computers or stereos on wheels. Even the best robots, neatly packaged
amalgams of clever industrial technology, are still rather primitive and
expensive. They have trouble climbing stairs and opening windows, and
they understand only the simplest commands.

Nevertheless, robots of one kind or another were stepping, rolling
or crawling everywhere at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show
held 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., and
billed as the “ultimate intelligent appliance of the
’80s,” is one example of off-the-shelf industrial technology
packaged to appeal to the upscale consumer. With its television-screen
face, de rigueur flashing lights and a computer keyboard that pulls out
from its stomach, Hubot is designed both to compute and to entertain.
Built on a triangular base for stability and to fit discreetly into a
corner when it isn’t whirring along at a foot per second, the unit
will eventually include an optional vaccum cleaner. Nevertheless, at
$3,500, Hubot, even as a walking, talking burglar alarm and wakeup
service, isn’t a bargain.

Another approach is to focus on one particular talent. Hearoid,
put together by TTC of Carson, Calif., contains a voice recognition
computer first used in some high-tech telephones. After a training
session, this midget robot can understand 12 spoken commands. The robot
also features a built-in cassette tape deck, which it can stop and start
on command. At one-tenth the price, Hearoid is cheaper than Hubot, but
it also does far less. When I pointed out some of the robot’s
shortcomings, one TTC official asked, “How much technology are you
willing 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 in
kit form. Hero I’s new cousin, Hero Jr., comes not only assembled
but also with a built-in personality. When bored, it can go to sleep or
mutter in Roblish, a random agglomeration of word segments, until it
“thinks” of something to do. Unless directed, the robot
normally wanders about randomly. A bump into a wall elicits a “Who
put that here?” from the somewhat absent-minded machine. A series
of plug-in cartridges extend Hero Jr.’s repetoire of songs,
routines, phrases and games.

Despite Hero’s success, part of the current excitement in the
home robot market is that no single robot design dominates the field.
Many manufacturers are making sure that the inner workings of their
robots are open so that any one can make changes or improvements. This
flexibility is one lesson that robot makers have learned from the
personal computer industry. Such modular robots evolve and grow with
the 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 of
personal robots may be a $2 billion industry by 1990. However, sales
now total only about $50 million a year, and robot manufacturers face
very high development costs. Because of a shortage of capital, some
companies can’t even afford to build all of the robots for which
they have taken orders, let alone to incorporate new technology. Still,
there has been progress. Less than five years ago, almost all
commercially available robots were little more than mechanical arms used
in factories.

High-technology companies also can’t resist tinkering with
robot designs just to show off their expertise, sometimes at great
expense. Japan’s Sumitomo Electric Co., for example, has developed
a mechanical musician that sight-reads music with its video camera head
while banging the keys and treading the pedals of a standard electric
organ. A Hitachi robot maps its surroundings and compares them to its
own map so that it can navigate around obstacles. Toshiba’s Amooty
clambers up and down stairs.

Denning Mobile Robotics, Inc., of Woburn, Mass., however, is
serious about its sentry robot, which may cost about $40,000 when
it’s ready next summer. This 300-pound wonder incorporates a
sophisticated self-navigation system that would allow it to patrol
warehouses and prisons or to wash floors in supermarkets and airports.

With such costly hardware wandering about, there’s a risk of
unintentionally ordering a robot to go over a cliff or into a brick
wall. The computer software company Brainworks, Inc., has the answer in
the form of an entertaining program called ChipWits. The user learns to
program a video robot to cope with a variety of hazards thrown up on the
screen of a Macintosh computer. Any simulated collisions are easily
corrected, and the screen robot goes on to further adventures.

Most home robots are now marketed as teaching aids–to show what
larger, more sophisticated industrial robots can do. Rather than
fulfilling the dream of owning a cheap, mechanical servant, they
demonstrate that the appetite for new gadgets, no matter how primitive,
never seems to be satiated. But at the Consumer Electronics Show, the
biggest attraction was no robot. An actor who out-roboted the robots
got away with flirtations that normally only Robert Redford could have


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