'Where is my robot?' - maybe here

From the Denver, CO Westworld comes this long and wonderful story of Jim and Louise Gunderson and their robot Basil:

The Gundersons get us ready for Basil, the robot of our dreams
When people ask Jim and Louise Gunderson if they have kids, they reply, "No, we have robots." But right now, Louise feels like any other harried mother carrying a kilo of toys and bottles and diapers wherever she goes. Today is the first big day out for her little one, and she's brought along everything Basil the robot may need. That includes a laptop in case they have to mess with his code, an impressively large wrench and a couple of screwdrivers if they have to tinker with his hardware, an extension cord for when he gets hungry, and super glue - lots and lots of super glue.

The adhesive's already proven vital: A little while ago, one of Basil's wheels fell off and they had to glue the sucker back on. "I sympathize with people with kids," says Louise. "We're going to have to make custom carriers for all this gear."

They can't bother with that now, though. They're in the back meeting room of the Wynkoop Brewing Company downtown, and in just over an hour they'll be surrounded by the legion of science and technology buffs that get together here ten times a year for Cafe Scientifique, a wildly popular beer- and curiosity-fueled colloquium on far-ranging science topics. The Gundersons will have the spotlight, detailing their work at Gamma Two Inc., the tiny Denver-based robotics research and design company they started in 2003.

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. These people are building amazing stuff for cheap while the "research labs" are blotting up money like mad and producing crap. The motivation for their work (and it sounds really awesome!):

"Our motivation is, 'Where is my robot?" explains Jim. "For fifty years, sixty years, they've been promising us our robots. The personal servants who are going to clean our house, walk the dog, do all that kind of stuff. We want Rosie from the Jetsons."

The Gundersons aren't the only ones who dream of a servicebot. As the baby boomers shuffle into their golden years, helpful automatons that allow the elderly to live at home longer could prove to be hugely cost-effective, given the price of nursing homes.

But until now, no one's figured out how to make such robots work, despite the fact that the world already has the hardware to do it. On one side are the amazing bots that stick to simple tasks. An automated car built at Stanford University made headlines in 2005, for instance, by winning a driverless-car competition, successfully navigating a 132-mile off-road course in under seven hours. Then there are the 2.5 million Roombas, the robotic vacuum cleaners that scurry about floors all over the world.

On the other side are the computers with robust artificial intelligence. In 1997, Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer, beat world champion Garry Kasparov and became the best player in the world. And Jim, for his dissertation, developed a computer program that could deliberate. When given a task, the software cycled through every action it knew how to do, picked the most suitable ones and figured out in what order to do them.

But when such AI is installed on robots tasked with getting stuff done in the real world, things get messy. Deep Blue, for example, knows how to move a knight piece on a chess board better than any human, but it doesn't actually know what a knight is - or, for that matter, where to find such a piece in a cluttered cabinet full of board games.

"We want robots that we can tell what to do and they'll figure out how do to it, and if something goes wrong, they'll figure out how to fix it or come back and ask for help," says Jim. "Complications, no problem. Changes with the world, no problem."

More and faster please!

And Cafe Scientifique -- a wonderful idea. When I lived in Seattle, there were a few Scientific Salons that happened monthly or at irregular times. There is the Dorkbot collective that is growing. Bellingham has several annual events that I always attend. The fact that there is a resurgence of this -- the very idea that people could gather in an amenable location (ie: where good food and alcohol are served) and talk about Science and explore the nether ends of interesting ideas -- makes my little hacker heart go pitty-pat...

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This page contains a single entry by DaveH published on December 21, 2008 11:06 PM.

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