Robots will become part of daily life

Fred O'Connor
PC World
Wednesday, October 17, 2007; 7:19 PM

Caring for an aging population, giving manual-labor jobs to illegal immigrants and keeping production costs down as worker wages rise sound like issues reserved for a political campaign. But panelists at a recent discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge believe robotics will help solve these problems and others faced by society and businesses.

Once relegated to science-fiction movies and automobile assembly lines, robots will handle more complex tasks in various industries, including health care and agriculture, according to those who spoke about the future of robotics.

"People underestimate the long-term effects of robotics on society," said Rod Brooks, cofounder and CTO (chief technology officer) of robotics company iRobot and director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence laboratory. "Robots are getting closer to people. We need to see how robots and people interact."

Robots are appearing in hospitals and will handle additional health-care duties as the population ages, he said. The Japanese use robots as companions for the elderly and robots at one U.S. hospital move laundry and deliver patient meals, said Brooks, whose company makes the Roomba vacuuming robots. He cited agricultural harvesting, an industry that uses illegal workers, as an area for robots as immigration enforcement cuts into the labor supply. Brooks also mentioned that the cheap labor provided by foreign nations will diminish as wages rise with manufacturers turning to robots to handle production.

However, a multitude of issues require remedies before robots play a more ubiquitous role.

Sensors that provide "the ability to really understand your environment" and "can provide instant feedback at an affordable cost" are needed said Tom Ryden, CEO of North End Technologies, which is in stealth mode. He then questioned the performance of the vehicle that won the DARPA Urban Challenge, which is a road race featuring automobiles operated autonomously, had the weather and road conditions not been perfect.

"What would have happened if it was raining?" he said. "That car wouldn't have made it 10 feet."

User interfaces, which sometimes prove too complex for people, also need refinement.

"Here's a little thing for you engineers out there. Engineers make the suckiest interfaces ever," Brooks said.

Soldiers had difficulty learning the controls of the PackBot, an iRobot product made for the military, prompting one company engineer to recommend that better- trained people handle the devices. iRobot, however, used a different tactic.

"Now we ship [PackBots] with a game controller and have instant usage," Brooks said.

It's also the case that better sensors capable of recognizing objects aren't useful if the intelligence to interpret this data isn't available, said Chris Hofmeister, CTO of Brooks Automation, which makes robots for handling automated tasks in the manufacturing industry. And power concerns for long-term field use need to be addressed, according to Deb Theobald, CEO of Vecna Technologies, whose BEAR robot is designed to remove humans from harmful situations.

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