Impatient Futurist: Your Domestic Robot Servant Has Finally Arrived (in a Fashion) | DISCOVER Magazine

Humanoid robots can dance and play Ping Pong. But folding towels and catering a party are proving to be trickier tasks.

David Plunkert

Like many people with limited social skills, Ive always wanted a robot. And Ive never been the least put off by the strict movie rule that having a robot can only result in its owner being pushed down the stairs, sucked into the vacuum of outer space, or enslaved with whats left of humanity. Im well aware that movie rules are hardly ever wrong, but it hasnt been fear of betrayal thats kept me from having a robot helper. Its been the lack of their existence, in spite of a century of big talk. And this has left me not only without the sort of nonemotion-experiencing companion who could really understand me but also with a lot more laundry, cooking, dirty dishes, and child care than a technophilic citizen of the 21st century should have to put up with.

Useful home robots have always been about 20 years in the future, according to expertsa discouraging estimate, since the same experts assure me every other exciting technology under development is only 5 years away. Yes, I know, you can drive over to Walmart and pick up a carpet-vacuuming robot to keep your lawn-mowing robot company. While youre there, why dont you also grab a house in the camping department? Ive got no interest in keeping company with hundreds of dumb, whirring little things. Scampering scrubbers and pot-stirrers are way too small and stupid to push me down the stairs when Im not looking.

Im hardly more impressed with the current small crop of machines that fall into the category of sticking a laptop on a wheeled dress mannequin and calling it a robot. The best youre going to do there is Luna, a human-size robot that will soon be widely available from a company called RoboDynamics in Santa Monica, California, for $3,000incredibly cheap for a humanoid, but incredibly expensive for a device that cant do much more than try not to bump into furniture and senior citizens as it desultorily wheels itself around your home, toting a tray of drinks youve carefully placed on its precarious, pipe-like arms. Dont count on much more than that from Ava, a forthcoming armless robot from iRobot (the Roomba folks) that replaces the laptop head with an iPad head. Please.

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No, Im holding out for something more along the lines of Personal Robot 2, or PR2 to its friends. Now theres a robot Id be proud to be enslaved by. Sold by Willow Garage in Menlo Park, California, 2 doesnt merely slink around your home, it actually does useful stuff. Get this: PR2 can fold laundry, walk and pick up after dogs, and cook a complete breakfast of Weisswurst Frhstck. Thats probably a lot more than you do around the house, assuming youre not one of those Bavarian superspouses who try to make the rest of us look bad.

AndPR2has viable competition for my enslavement: HERB (a.k.a. Home Exploring Robotic Butler, in keeping with the intergalactic law requiring all robot names to be colorless acronyms), developed by the Personal Robotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.HERBcan, among many other things, fetch beer, which is criticalany robot I buy that cant do as much is going straight back to Amazon. Whats more,HERBcan pick up and carry around mugs of coffee and later bring the empty mugs to the sink, and has been enlisted at parties to do this all day long. This really impresses me, because its what I do all day long, too, and its taken me quite a while to get good at it.

So why dont i consider myself to be living in the age of home robots? I hate to go negative on my future best friends/masters, but I feel obligated to point out their shortcomings.PR2can do cool things, but only under tightly controlled conditions, and with uneven results. For example, the only laundry it can fold is a towel, and it takes it six minutes to fold a single one (bright sideishly, thats down from 25 minutes in earlier versions). AlsoPR2costs $400,000. That would be a big drawback for me, too, if it werent for the generous expense budget I get as a columnist. HERB is similarly limitedit dropped eight mugs during the aforementioned partyand would probably be at least as expensive if it were buyable. Which it isnt.

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Impatient Futurist: Your Domestic Robot Servant Has Finally Arrived (in a Fashion) | DISCOVER Magazine

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