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Friday, April 20 News

Living with Technology / 'Danger, Will Robinson!' Where are all the robots?

As I look back on many of the technologies that were predicted decades ago, some have come true.

Certainly the Star Trek "communicators" ended up being the mobile phones of today. Video calls once thought completely exotic are free with tools such as Skype. Even wall-sized televisions cost les than $1,000. Life is good.

We still haven't mastered the flying car or daily space travel, but certainly the flying car continues to make inroads by various entrepreneurs.

But what hit me the other day is the lack of robots in our lives and our homes. I could certainly use an R2D2 or C3PO from Star Wars in my home.

Where are the robots that can clean our home, make our meals, mow our lawns and generally take care of stuff for us?

The most popular robot that people have in their home is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Granted, they've sold millions of these units, but it's hardly where I would expect by now.

That says to me it's really hard to be (or build) a robot.

Basic things like walking are remarkably difficult. I had one person describe walking to me as controlled imbalance. If you think about it, when you're standing still, you're balanced. When you're walking, you're in a continuous state of imbalance.

Walking is pretty hard to do. It takes babies a year or more before they're walking and they have brains that learn quite quickly. Yet it takes a long time for a baby to learn about balance, fall down a lot and bump into things before walking becomes capable.

Teaching all of these things to a robot is incredibly hard. Not only does one have to know how to walk, but one has to know the exceptions such as stepping on a marble, slipping, being pushed, avoiding obstacles (tables, pets, other people, etc.)

Robots also need to understand what we want and be able to respond. For those who give voice commands to our mobile phones, you know how imprecise that can be.

Then a robot needs to know its skill, whether it be cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc. The ability to know how to make a bed, crack an egg, or whether or not a plant in a garden is a weed or not, are very basic skills for us but require incredible knowledge if given to a robot.

Google has done some pretty amazing things with its autonomous (driverless) cars. The ability for a computer/robot to drive a car and be able to understand traffic patterns, speed limits and, most importantly, other drivers, is nothing short of a miracle.

But, for the time being, probably the only robot I will be able to have in my home is a Roomba. I guess I'll still have to clean my home, make my own meals and do my own gardening. Since I often find these activities relaxing, I guess I won't let a robot have all the fun.

Mark Mathias is a Westport resident and has worked in information technology for more than 30 years. His "Living With Technology" appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at: livingwithtechnology@mathias.org