Perhaps a love of science fiction has ingrained unrealistic expectations in me about the prospects for robots.
At CE Week, an annual consumer electronics conference held last week in New York, a variety of robots skittered around among the other gadgets in the showroom area (see slideshow), under the command of their human operators. Whether they were following preset programs, or executing orders sent from a smartphone, some of the robots on hand still behaved more or less like radio-controlled toys of old.
This was far from a revolt by articulate machines with full artificial intelligence bent on wiping out humanity, as depicted in “Terminator Genisys,” which hits movie theaters today.
That is probably an unfair comparison (and also fortunate for the survival of our species). After all, robots are used in manufacturing, certain medical work, and to do jobs in areas too hazardous for people.
Yet, the yearning persists to see robots that walk fluidly and not stumble around like drunks schlepping home after last call. (Watch video of this year’s epic fails from the DARPA Robotics Challenge; there is still a lot of work ahead.)
After listening to a panel at CE Week on robots, moderated by Engadget’s Devindra Hardawar, it’s clear this sector is taking steps forward—in directions not necessarily born from science fiction.
One set of robots, from Ozobot, might encourage tomorrow’s innovators to create new ideas. “Ozobot is a tiny form robot [whose] primary purpose is to gamify STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education and computer science,” said Nader Hamda, CEO and founder of Ozobot.
These little bubble-top robots can be programmed to maneuver along color-coded paths that can be drawn on paper with a marker or displayed on the screen of a tablet. The company has developed games on the Web that Hamda said can help make STEM education more interactive.
Andres Garza, a designer with toy company Spin Master, demonstrated how voice commands can be used to control a robot called Meccanoid, built with a kit from Meccano (sold under the Erector Set brand in the U.S., and owned by Spin Master).
Meccanoid can be told to perform a few dance moves and show off its kung fu skills, but is marketed for more than entertainment purposes, he said. “We wanted to make a platform for kids to get into robotics with electronics and software,” Garza said. The company developed an app that lets kids create commands for the robot to execute.
Many robots currently available to consumers are more like advanced appliances that perform specific tasks; there are related functions they simply cannot do. “The dishwasher doesn’t go find dishes around your house, and put them in the dishwasher,” said Davin Sufer, chief technical officer with WowWee, maker of a variety of robots and other consumer products.
That kind of specialization may be holding back the potential, and mainstream appeal, of some robots—such as the type that vacuum the floor. Rob Pegoraro, columnist for YahooTech and USA Today, said that was one of the reasons why he did not own a Roomba. “What they need to make it useful is a separate robot to get my five-year-old’s toys off the floor,” he said.