Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How Close Are We To C/Fe?

Asimov fans will, of course, recognize the abbreviation in the title.

For the rest of us, C/Fe is a society in which robots are integrated into the lives of humans fully. Asimovian robots are humanoid to some degree or other (R. Daneel Olivaw is so hyperrealistic he, and others like him, can pass as human).

Setting aside the Three Laws, how close are we to robots being integrated into society. Closer all the time.

Here are a few recent steps:

1. Robot Ray. The robot valet entered service yesterday. For $39 a day, business travelers can leave their car in a designated spot and the robot will put it in a safe parking place. Ray is, of course, not a humanoid robot - he's a specially designed forklift. He can be summoned using your phone. (I fail to see in what way this is better than a human valet, but...)

2. The Tokyo Science Museum has introduced two "science communicators" - lifelike automatons that are easily mistaken for humans. However, these androids are a long way from R. Daneel - they are remote controlled and their speech is entered by human museum guides. However, they might be a step towards getting people used to the uncanny valley effect of truly humanoid robots.

3. Most significant of all, but likely missed by many, is Pepper. Pepper is roughly humanoid - he moves on wheels instead of walking, but has hands, etc. The manufacturers, Aldebaran, claim that Pepper can analyze expression and voice tones and actually recognize his owners' emotions, react pro-actively and communicate in a surprisingly humanoid manner. The robot is designed to be a companion for the elderly but could also be used to do various household chores. The planned release is January 2015 - with the SDK for making apps released much sooner, because there has to be a SDK for making apps. And Pepper will retail for...about $2k - the price of a good PC.

That puts us a big step closer to a robot in every home...as natural as having a computer is now. (In fact, personal robots like Pepper may replace many of the things we currently use our PC for. "Hey, Pepper, what's the weather?" or "Pepper, could you please email so-and-so and tell them we'll be late for the party.")