A Robot in Every Home

Scientific American January 2007 issue features an article by Bill Gates titled A Robot in Every Home [1]. Is domestic robotics industry going to reach critical mass in the short term? Robotics applications in manufacturing are a reality. However, practical application of robotics in the residential market is another story. In his article, Bill Gates talks about the challenges of this domain, and remarks the need for a standard framework (although he doesn’t mention it initially, obviously he is referring to the newly released Microsoft Robotics Studio).

Gate’s vision of robotics is based on an evolution of the PC. From personal computers in every home, to personal robots in every home. It is like endowing the current PCs with the features of typical science fiction robots. But, is this likely to happen in the short term? Is Microsoft powerful enough to drive such a change in the market? Do we actually have the required technology? I wouldn’t answer these questions yet, but I’d say that the time of NS-5 type robots hasn’t come yet.

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Polymorphic Robotics

Polymorphic Robotics, self-adaptive, self-organizing, and generally self-* properties of robotics are usually related to the field of machine consciousness. Basically, some degree of self-consciousness is required to self-repair or self-heal a robot. The SASO 2007 Conference covers this discipline (First IEEE International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems. Boston, Mass., USA, July 9-11, 2007) [1].

Related topics are: self-organization, self-adaptiveness, self-management, self-monitoring, self-tuning, self-repair, self-configuration. There is no doubt that integrating these kinds of techniques with higher cognitive models requires a machine consciousness like model.

Some examples of polymorphic robots are available from the Polymorphic Robotics Lab at University of Southern California [2].

Making plans

Traditionally, human are the only animals considered able to plan ahead. However, recent research works demonstrate that other higher mammals (like bonobos) are able to save tools for future use. As published in Nature by Nicholas J. Mulcahy and Josep Call from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology [1], this skill is not uniquely human. In their experiments, bonobos and orangutans transported and saved appropriate tools above baseline levels to use them for 1 hour to 14 hours later. These results suggest that the precursor skills for planning for the future evolved before 14 million years ago.

Some researchers see planning for the future as one of the key functionalities of consciousness. A related controversial question is whether or not consciousness (or imagination) is necessary for planning. Human planning involves imagination of the future states, and imagination is usually related to consciousness.

[1] Nicholas J. Mulcahy and Josep Call. Apes Save Tools for Future Use. Science 19 May 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5776, pp. 1038 – 1040.