KU professor predicts autonomous robots are decades away

Lawrence,KS (07-19-2004)

From Lawrence Journal-World
By Dave Toplikar

It was a hot weekend afternoon. And I knew the 20 bags of topsoil weren't going to move themselves.

So I started loading them from my van onto the wheelbarrow.

I grunted and pushed the first 120-pound load up the slope of my front yard, over the pin oak roots and through the bushes to the front porch foundation.

Somewhere between the third and fourth load, it struck me that this was the 21st century. I wondered why we don't yet have robots to help us with our heaviest weekend chores, such as the personal assistants in the new sci-fi film, "I, Robot."

I'd love to sit under a shade tree with a beer, watching a robot work.

Still decades away

A Kansas University scientist who works in the robotics field says the going is much slower than many of us had hoped.

"Every time you make predictions in the world of robotics that we will have something in 10 years, 10 years will come and we still don't have it," said Arvin Agah, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Robots envisioned by science-fiction writers with "positronic" brains that can think for themselves and make sophisticated decisions are decades away.

"We're making headway. But my personal prediction is it will be 50 years before we're even close," Agah said.

Simple tasks

However, Agah noted more of us would be using robots for simple domestic chores in the near future.

For example, the Roomba Floorvac robotic vacuum cleaner has been on the market for a couple of years, costing about $200.

And its maker, the iRobot Corp., also builds a PackBot, which is being used in Iraq and Afghanistan to neutralize explosive devices before U.S. soldiers are sent into a combat area.

According to Colin Angle, iRobot's CEO, "We have finally reached the day when we can say robots are no longer science fiction."

"They are a real part of human life. Today robots are cleaning our homes, mowing our lawns and saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan," Angle said in a statement released by his company earlier this month. "Tomorrow, robots will be maintaining our homes for us, helping our older population live independently longer, and working to protect us from terrorism."

Agah tends to agree. Agah said robots were available for mowing lawns and for use as toys and entertainment.

Friendly Robotics Inc., which makes a robotic mower and vacuum cleaner, also is planning to introduce an "automated indoor surface cleaner intended for domestic use."

The company says it also is planning to bring to market a robotic snow thrower, an in-house security surveillance robot, "and perhaps one day a 'personal helper' that can bring your meals to the table, clean up after you and even dispose of your garbage."

Commercial robots have been used by factories and hospitals to do repetitive tasks, Agah said.

But they generally require making significant changes to the environment, such as putting up antennas or painting the ceiling a different color, so a robot can follow the color to complete a task.

No strings attached

Before we see more sophisticated robots, researchers have to figure out how to make a robot think for itself, Agah said.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has put up a $1 million prize for the first autonomous robot that can traverse a 150-mile course from California to Nevada. However, the best scientific teams have been able to build a robot that can only travel seven miles of the course, he said.

"The problem is autonomy," Agah said. "If you're willing to take a joystick and tell a robot what to do, a great amount of work can be done. If you want autonomy, which means the robot has to make decisions and be intelligent, that's the challenge."

Domestic drudgery

Last Wednesday, my dog discovered she could dig her way out of the back yard. So Wednesday night I was back at it with the wheelbarrow, filling in the hole.

As I pushed a second load up the hill, my dog started barking as a neighbor walked up to see how the job was going.

That's when it struck me -- we might not have robots yet that help us with our heavy, daily chores.

But, we still have our beasts of burden.

I studied my dog, wondering if I could harness her up to the wheelbarrow.

She walked away and went under the shade tree to watch me work.

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