Gadget Freak: Looking for a Few Good Bots--Robots for Work and Play
I'm not a demanding person. All I ask from life is a happy home, steady work, and a personal robot slave to cater to my every whim.
We're not quite there yet, but the age of household bots has arrived. There are robotic vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, and floor scrubbers, plus a boatload of robotic toys. I decided to see what the modern robotic lifestyle was like.
First I unleashed Wowwee Robotics' Robopet. It looks like the Taco Bell Chihuahua dressed up as an Imperial Storm Trooper, and has a herky-jerky walk unlike that of any living thing. Yet the Robopet---Bo for short---is an impressive piece of technology. Infrared sensors let Bo maneuver around objects, avoid falling down stairs, and respond to movements. It can bark, whine, howl, pant, sit, stand, jump, roll over, play dead, pass gas, and lift a leg as if to mark its territory. Bo can cycle through everything on command or spontaneously; and you can order it to do specific tricks using the remote.
After about 5 minutes of nonstop activity, my wife and I were ready to send Bo to the pound. But not my six-year-old. She loved Bo. To her, Bo was just like a Jack Russell terrier, but with an off switch.
Robopet is far less sophisticated than Sony's $2000 Aibo pet, which uses artificial intelligence to recognize patterns and can understand 100 words and phrases. Then again, Robopet costs only $99; simplicity has its advantages.
The Roomba Rumba
Toys are fun, but the real value of robots is in work, not play. So I also tried iRobot's $329 Roomba Scheduler. (Scooba, Roomba's floor mopping sib, should be ready by the time you read this.)
Just 4 inches high and 13 inches wide, the disc-shaped Roomba scuttles across the carpet like a midget carrying a hatbox, slipping under couches, bouncing off walls, following a seemingly random pattern that eventually covers every square inch of floor. When finished, Roomba scoots back to its docking station and recharges.
A handheld remote lets you schedule cleaning sessions (hence the bot's name), while two "virtual walls"---small transmitters that emit a beam of infrared light---let you limit where Roomba will roam. This lets you tell Roomba to clean the living room on Wednesday, the dining room on Thursday, and so on.
Creating a schedule was easy: I just picked a day and time, and 'beamed' the info to Roomba and the two walls. Overall, Roomba did a fine job on my carpets, though power cords tend to get sucked up along with the dirt. To get Roomba to clean a different room, simply pick him up and move him.
Yes, I said "him." After just a day, this mindless machine began to take on personality. He was...cute. According to Greg White, iRobot's VP of marketing, my response isn't uncommon. He says more than 60 percent of iRobot's 1.2 million customers name their vacuum cleaners. (My mother-in-law owns a Roomba named "Ruby.")
Unfortunately, White says my personal robot slave is still a long way off. That's because building taller bots that can handle a higher center of gravity is a huge technical challenge. Humanoid robots like Honda's 4-foot-tall Asimo, which cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, may never reach mass production.
But I have hope. Japan has plans to build a moon base populated entirely by robots, by 2025. So even if I never get my personal bot, my six-year-old---who'll be 26 then---may one day have a robot slave to call her own.