Robot gadgets

I like this article in the New York Times today, asking about the status of truly pervasive robots.

An important point that we researchers don’t like talking about is:

The most advanced robots remain exotic workhorses like NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, which cost $2.5 billion, and the LS3, a doglike robot being developed for the U.S. military that can carry a 400-pound, or 180-kilogram load more than 20 miles, or about 30 kilometers. The mechanical beast of burden, whose price is not public, is being made by a consortium led by Boston Dynamics. In Menlo Park, California, engineers at Willow Garage, a robotics firm, are selling the two-armed, 5-foot-4 inch (1.63-meter) rolling robot called the PR2 for $400,000.

A video on Willow Garage’s Web site shows the PR2 fetching beer from a refrigerator, which while an engineering and programming feat, is an expensive way to get beer.

In a recent interview I saw on Bloomberg TV, Colin Angle, co-founder of iRobot, discussed what it took for him to make one such product, the Roomba, pervasive. The transition, as he put it, was the one from talking about advances in robotics to thinking like a vacuum cleaner salesman and making sure the robotics technology really does deliver on the applications front.

Now, most of us didn’t become robotics researchers to think about vacuum cleaner sales but it does seem to me that if we are really serious about robots ‘everywhere’, we must ask what the broader class of applications are and what is preventing those. These issues are likely to be quite different from that of building an even more bigger badder robot – requiring a whole other kind of innovation and techniques. Perhaps we should remember how areas like wireless communications become even more interesting to academics precisely because of the focus on actually making these devices part of our lives (it is literally the last piece of technology I interact with before I go to sleep and the first piece of technology I wake up to – when can we say that about a robot?!).

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