Trouble with Robots by Bob Gornal G7DME

I wonder how many of our readers remember Supermarionation?

Hmm now, I bet, some of you are thinking I heard of that before but can’t quite put my finger on it. Ok here is another clue for you – Gerry Anderson, now I bet we are cooking.

No?

No worries let me put you out of your misery – Supercar, Fireball XL5, Joe 90, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Stingray.

All these were children’s serials from the 60s.70s.80s and they were all filmed in yes you got it Supermarionation.

So what was Supermarionation? Simply super marionettes, that’s how Gerry Anderson described the puppets he used in these shows. These things stood between 2 and 3 ft tall hence the name Super marionette.

So what has this to do with robots? Well one of the characters from Fireball XL5 was called Robbie the Robot. He, sorry it, was the co pilot of Fireball XL5 and had only one line in the serial and that was “On our way home,” usually it would say this at the end of each episode. Unfortunately, when Robert broke down, as it did from time to time, it would just keep repeating the same phrase.

As the years have passed man’s dream of creating robots has become much nearer to reality.

The main contenders for the coveted title of robot builder at present are:

Honda who have created  Asimo    (http://asimo.honda.com/index.asp?bhcp=1)
Sony who have created  QRIO:(http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/QRIO/story/)

Both these machines are rapidly becoming celebrities in their own right and both companies are trying their hardest to bring these machines into the home, as for their lead times both think they could have a marketable product by 2010.

However, there is a 3rd contender that’s already introduced robots into the home, and that is ROOMBA.    (http://www.irobot.com/)

By this time I suspect that some of you are getting the impression this is a wind up.  Well I can assure you this is not, ‘Irobot’ is a genuine brand name and the company has designed the very first autonomous robot to be introduced into the home.

There is in fact a whole family of these products that share the same name, and these robots are truly autonomous to such a degree that after completing their allotted task they automatically make their way back to their charging station ready for the next job.
Although these products have only limited intelligence (probably on par with the common garden slug) it is certainly measurable to such a degree that they can even suffer from the equivalent of a nervous breakdown, I know what you’re thinking: ‘this guy is having a laugh on me.’

Well I suppose I would have thought the same until we bought one of these miracles of automation, but before we go any further let me start at the beginning.

In 2004 my daughter was out doing her Christmas shopping and she came across, for want of a better word, a modern equivalent of the 1960s wind up robot, which went by the name of ‘Homosapian.’ This miracle of technology was capable of rudimental functions such as walking, talking, picking up an item, throwing the item and dancing.
Like all youngsters today she loves gadgets and has all the latest mod cons from kitchen appliances to the ‘ipods.’

Of course at the sight of this robot she fell in love with it immediately, the upshot being that her husband brought it for her for Christmas. Come Christmas day we had a demonstration of this gadget and as usual the general discussion came round its price. At that time they were quite expensive around £199.00. Of course my wife’s immediate response was: “For that sort of money I would expect it to do the vacuuming for me at the very least.”

My daughters response was, “Don’t be daft if there was anything like that on the market don’t you think I would have one, you now how I hate vacuuming. With that we laughed and the whole affair was forgotten, well almost.

Some months later around September time my wife’s Dyson died and we were looking around the web for a new vacuum cleaner when we came across ROOMBA’s web site. They were advertising a range of robotic appliances, a fully autonomous vacuum cleaner, floor washer, floor polisher and lawn mower. There were no prices, no contact details and the site links didn’t work. At first we thought it was a joke site, you know the type of thing, book your trip to the moon now launch date 2030.

Remembering the conversation with our daughter the previous Christmas we thought: “Wouldn’t this be great if these products were really available”? So just for the hell of it we started searching the web, and sure enough we came across Irobots website. We thought this is too good to be true, but sure enough there was this vacuum cleaner that was guaranteed to be able to attend to the task of vacuuming the house without supervision. We had a few bob spare and decided to give it a go and at £269.00 pound including P/P sealed the deal.

It arrived about a week later, we unpacked it and put it on its initial 16-hour charge and left it at that.

The next morning my wife came down looked at it, shook her head and said: “I can’t see this being much good, I think we have been done.”

My immediate response was, “If nothing else it puts us one up on our gadget mad daughter.”

However as per instructions she put this thing into the middle of the room and pressed the ‘clean’ button and off it went. To our amazement not only did it do a thorough job, as it finished one room it would wonder off into the passage and do that, then it would find its way into the kitchen, lounge and when it was satisfied the job was done it dutifully returned to it charging point plugged itself in and shut down until it was called on to start its task all over again.

But back to our original discussion our ‘Roomba’ worked well for several months, then one morning my wife came down and switched on and all it would do was go round in circles on the same spot, not unlike our friend Robert from fireball XL5, just repeating the same lines over and over again.

She brought our rather sick robot out to me in the kitchen and asked me to take a look at it I emptied the machine cleaned all its sensors, then tried it out again with the same result.

Eventually we decided to contact the manufactures to arrange to get it repaired. Having contacted their customer help line we were transferred to technical support. They asked us what the symptoms were and we explained “It just goes around in circles.”

“Ah it’s developed ‘circular dance syndrome’.”

“What?”

He repeated, “Circular dance syndrome. As you are probably aware the machine has a limited reasoning ability based on random events that can cause the machine to go into unpredictable loops and circular dance syndrome. It’s just one of these events that can occur.”

He added, “This is not uncommon when dealing with sophisticated machines such as the ROOMBA, as new problems occur, though fortunately it is not that common. We analyse the problem, then update the software accordingly.” He then promised to send out the necessary updates.

The said upgrade arrived a couple of weeks later and came in the form a small device called OSMO. This you plug into the serial port and yes you’ve got it, it completes the upgrade automatically. OSMO is quite an unusual device in several ways:

As part of your licence agreement you are required to return it to Irobot.
It’s a one off device in other words it can only be used the once.
The device is fully automated you plug it in and switch on the machine and the update it done automatically.

But before uploading the update it downloads a sort of physiological profile, presumably some form log file, which monitors the device and records its status last time it was used, then its current status. This helps the designers to determine the source of the problem, in order for them to incorporate the necessary fixes in the next generation.

All in all its quite an amazing process, as these products are still in their infancy it will be interesting to see how they grow and develop in the coming years.

So maybe there is another contender for the title of robot builder in the future.

Although their approach is very different to Sony and Honda they may still have the edge and what’s more, perhaps we as a society would be more receptive to intelligent machines that don’t take on human form.

Bob Gornal (G7DME) – Vital Spark February 2008.

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