The goal is ambitious but there’s a motive behind it!
The video above by Reuters features some of the robots that were on display at this year’s INNOROBO Conference in Lyon, France. A recent article in the BBC which featured the conference suggests that it may be time we forget about the idea of robots as companions however, some of the robots displayed in the video above seem like they could provide valuable human accompaniment to suit a variety of human needs.
The article quotes Willow Garage representative Tim Field as saying “It would cost $5m to design and create a robot which was capable of flying and landing an airplane, but even if you gave me $50m, I could not make something that could naturally reach into my pocket and take out my keys.” Of course, Field has a point. We are far off from being able to create machines like Star Wars’ C3PO and R2D2 who’s actions appeared as intuitive as their human masters. However, Keenan Wyrobek, another Willow Garage representative, is working hard to develop the software and hardware a robot would need to carry out such a task, explaining that similar to the way that personal computers have become part of our every day lives, both at work and at home, the company envisions robots as having a similar future. In fact, the company’s own PR2 robot seems to be fitting into everyday life seamlessly; you can check it out fetching beers, playing pool and cleaning up with the use of a cart.
It’s important to remember that different robots are intended for different purposes. The first robot featured in the video above is all show. One of its creators Will Jackson, explains to the BBC that he’s not expecting this robothespian to get dirty doing domestic chores, “This will never clean the house, it will not clean the floor, it will never do the dishes. That kind of notion for a service robot we think is completely wrong. It will never be a viable economic thing to have this kind of robot performing domestic service functions. Forget about it.¨ Nevertheless, irobot has made a fortune with their Roomba vacuum and the company has newly introduced Scooba, which can wash floors and clean pools.
Other recently successful domestic bots include ones that can mow the lawn and even ones that function as cat litters! Of course non of these robots are humanoid but who’s saying they should be? With robots becoming increasingly ubiquitous and studies showing a demand for different types of domestic bots, why shouldn’t researchers be spending the extra effort to make robots that are more like companions and less like clumsy machines? For example, the simple addition of a Skype feature to a mobile robot can provide its user with the companionship of a family member who might be far away.
As nations around the word face the challenges associated with an ageing population, experts suggest robots could provide important support in urban environments and the healthcare sector. The notion of a robot companion is not to play God by creating walking machines that reflects ourselves, as Will Jackson suggests in the BBC article, but rather to refine robotic technology so that it can assist society in the broadest way.
If you’re interested in European robotics research, check out this idea of a robot companion.