The Mythical Robot

We just finished up an outreach event.  The Colorado Robotics Association sponsored Automate! Denver, and we brought our Gamma Two Vigilus(tm) robot to show off.  The event showcases the growing robotics industry in Colorado, with educational exhibits, new products, robot competitions, all that cool stuff.  One of the local high school FIRST teams provided food as a fund raiser, and a great time was had by all!

Vigilus Security robot at Automate! DenverWe got to talk about two of my favorite subjects, robots and the business of robotics, to a wide range of people from different backgrounds and with differing perspectives. And we got to hear stories. Stories of robot competitions won and lost, stories of situations where they could have really used a robot, and stories of the Mythical Robot.

The Mythical Robot shows up frequently. It is the robot that no-one has ever seen, but a friend of a friend told them, or there was this video, or web-site once that showed… And it is cool!  It does everything, it does everything really well, it does many things far better than a person could do.  In some ways it is the antithesis of the Killer Robot Overlord, but, in the end, just as mythical.

I think seeing our robots at work inspires people to tell us the stories. You see, unlike the more common tele-operated robots, our robots are autonomous.  They take instructions, move on their own, make choices about what actions to do next, and ask for help when they need it. They also talk, and listen to our commands.  This makes them seem a lot smarter than they really are, and that inspires people to remember stories they have heard about robots, they recall videos showing robots doing really cool stuff.  And, sometimes those stories and images get conflated into one single super-robot: The Mythical Robot.

There has been an amazing amount of progress made in robotics over the last decade or so.  There are robots that, under the right circumstances, can fold laundry, there are robots that  make sushi, there are robot cars driving on the streets in some cities. But the general purpose robot, the one robot that does it all, is still the Mythical Robot. And unfortunately, the ‘right circumstances’ are very, very rare. In many example videos it may take hours to set-up the right circumstances, and even then it may take several ‘takes’ to get the video. But, we see the final videos, and to most people it looks like the Mythical Robot is everywhere.

Of course, the media help the Mythical Robot, the demo videos make great visual equivalents of sound bites, and there is infinite fodder for movies.  If you haven’t seen this movie trailer for Prometheus, take a look at it now: David 8.  It truly sets the stage for the Mythical Robot.

The Mythical robot has many powerful impacts, some good, some less so.  On the positive side the Mythical Robot is what inspires us to build better robots. We look at these visions of the future and it both informs and drives our research and development. Almost every robotics researcher I have ever met in the last 20 years can point to one moment when their drive to be a roboticist started. One blinding flash, when they confronted a Mythical Robot and said “I want to build that!” The Mythical Robot also informs the development. It is far easier to imagine in words or images what the role of the robot would be, than it is to build it. So the Mythical Robot becomes the testing ground for how humans and robots will interact and work together, or against each other as in many robotic dystopias.

However, the Mythical Robot can have a chilling effect on the many people who are interested in supporting the development of robots. There are people at funding agencies that write grants to improve our knowledge and understanding, but they don’t fund it if they think it has already been done. There are people who invest in robotics companies to bring cutting edge technology to commercial products, but not if they think the technology is ‘old hat’ compared to the Mythical Robot.  And there are millions of consumers waiting to buy these commercial robots to improve their lives. But it is easy to get confused about the line that separates reality from myth, the huge chasm between a Roomba(tm) and a Rosie the Robot(tm). We all have in the back of our heads a gestalt impression of robots, whether we are scientists or kids in school, and we all have an image of the ‘state-of-the-art’, drawn from our everyday experiences.  For many people, the perceived state-of-the-art is driven more by the Mythical Robot than by the reality.

It becomes difficult to track exactly where we are on the development path.  It becomes hard to separate the myth from the reality. As new developments are made, we creep closer to the Mythical Robot, so it is a fuzzy line to trace, even for people working in the field.  Over a decade ago we heard about it at a technical conference on using robots to help fight terrorism, one participant described the robot charging across the subway platform to subdue a terrorist picked out from the rush hour crowd.  Just a month ago at an exhibition put on by the NDIA, on cutting edge ground robotics, we heard about this robot that somebody has in Europe that can do everything. Now, they have some really cool robots in Europe, but this one was the Mythical Robot.

The question is what can you do to enhance the inspirational aspect of the mythical robot, and warm up the chilling aspects? We need that drive and exploration that will lead to the Mythical Robot becoming reality, but to get there we have to accept that there is a lot of hard work that needs to be supported. I can tell you that our approach is simple: we celebrate the accomplishments by taking our robots to events like Automate! Denver and the upcoming Colorado TEDx FrontRange event – to give people an example of what is actually possible today.

And, when we are exhibiting our robots, robots that routinely do an important task, one that people don’t really want to do;  real robots doing that dull security patrol hour after hour, day after day, we know that there is another robot lurking in the collective unconscious. The Mythical Robot that does it all,  and we ask people:

Where is your robot? Ours are being built right here in Colorado, at Gamma Two Robotics.

[Note: All trademarks are the property of the respective trademark owners.]

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  1. #1 by Linda Hughes on April 20, 2012 - 7:59 am

    great post! Now that you mention it, I guess I have heard more about the Killer Robot Overlord than the Mythical Robot – or maybe that they were the same.

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