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Robotics Technology

iRobot CEO: Humanoid Robots Too Expensive To Be the Norm 122

Posted by timothy
from the we-could-just-robotify-cats dept.
Movie robots often look like (and are portrayed by) people in bulky, bipedal suits. Why aren't more robots built along these lines? It's not just the problem of balance. Reader concertina226 writes "'Building a robot that has legs and walks around is a very expensive proposition. Mother Nature has created many wonderful things but one thing we do have that nature doesn't is the wheel, a continuous rotating joint, and tracks, so we need to make use of inventions to make things simpler,' [iRobot CEO Colin] Angle tells IBTimes UK. 'The reason it has taken so long for the robotics industry to move forward is because people keep trying to make something that is cool but difficult to achieve, rather than trying to find solutions to actual human problems. Technology can be extremely expensive if you don't focus.'" [Beware the autoplaying video.]
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iRobot CEO: Humanoid Robots Too Expensive To Be the Norm

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  • by GrumpySteen (1250194) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @10:45AM (#46439591)

    Tens of thousands of robots put together cars, furniture and other things every day. They don't have legs and most are bolted to a concrete floor and are little more than an arm.

    The Roomba, Google's self-driving car, drones, spacecraft, the mars landers... we've made a shitload of robots that don't have legs. There's no shortage of non-legged robot research and production going on.

    The CEO quoted in the article has a bug up his ass about one small area of R&D and is making idiotic excuses for why it should be eliminated. My hope is that gets in an accident and loses a leg. Maybe then he'll see the value in the R&D that's been done on robotic legs.

  • by Joce640k (829181) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @11:15AM (#46439703) Homepage

    Not everyone lives in a one-floor apartment, after all.

    My cat isn't bipedal but has no problem with stairs. How weird is that?

    And there's no way a robot could have a special rail to grab onto or a little elevator like granny has?

    Bipeds are the only option!

  • by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @11:23AM (#46439735) Journal
    Specialisation vs. generalisation. Build a robot with 8 legs and it will only carry girders for you; if you want something to inspect pipes or weld bits of steel together, you might have to get a different robot. A humanoid robot however can do a variety of tasks. If the jobs are varied and ever-changing, a humanoid robot might work out better than specialised ones. And a humanoid robot can go where we go, which is useful in places where they work alongside us or share our environment (think: stairs!). Think of the chores that need doing around your house: would you rather have a specialized robot for each task, or a humanoid robot than can do all, even assist in 2 man jobs like putting up a shed?

    Also, in technology, the phrase "too expensive" should always beconsidered with the word "today" added. Think computers: how long did powerful computing take to become cheap and ubiquitous? There's no components in humanoid robots that will not become cheaper with mass production, and as we often see with other technology, mass production will drive simplification of the design itself as well. If there's a good use for humanoid robots, I'm betting that eventually they will be cheap enough for individuals to own. The hardware isn't even that expensive today, the problem is that the software just isn't there yet.
  • by KeithJM (1024071) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @11:29AM (#46439769) Homepage
    This is a very good point, and for robots designed for a single task that obviously makes sense. But if they have to be able to move around a house or office (with either stairs or an elevator with buttons to push), or open doors, or put dishes away from the dishwasher, etc -- they'll need to be shaped roughly like a human. The more human-shaped they are the more easily they can integrate into a world designed for human-shaped things to get things done. The alternative is to redesign everything in the world to make LESS convenient for people to use them.
  • by MightyYar (622222) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @12:06PM (#46439963)

    Yeah, but I'll retrofit my home for something way less cool than a robot. My house was built before cable and before home computer networks, so I'm getting good at pulling cable. My house was built before insulation and before power garage door openers, but those things were added. The kitchen has been completely refurbed to accommodate automatic dishwashers, microwaves, and garbage disposals. An upstairs laundry was retrofitted when that became fashionable. If you told me there was some robot that I could purchase that kept the house clean, took the trash out, and so on... I'd probably install the necessary retrofit - especially if that meant that I could have more features for the same price.

  • by Anubis IV (1279820) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @03:50PM (#46440979)

    Maybe I'm reading into it a bit, but I doubt the guy is so obtuse that he doesn't realize there's enough money to go around for the various forms of locomotion. I think this is just some defensive posturing he's doing in public to try and paint his company's products in a better light against the soon-to-be competition.

    Here's what I see:
    1) iRobot is a major supplier of defense and security robots currently in use by the US military [irobot.com].
    2) iRobot's entire lineup is based on wheeled or treaded robots. There's no indications of them being anywhere close to fielding a walking robot of any sort.
    3) Meanwhile, Boston Dynamics [bostondynamics.com], a small company that wasn't yet a credible threat, has been working on both bipedal [bostondynamics.com] and quadrupedal [bostondynamics.com] robots [bostondynamics.com] for DARPA that are to the point where they're being field tested by the military.
    4) Then, Google bought Boston Dynamics [nytimes.com], meaning it suddenly has far more resources available to it than before, making them a much more credible threat.
    5) And now, shortly thereafter, iRobot's CEO suddenly comes out trashing the technology used by the competition, just as that technology is reaching a point where it can start entering the market.

    As I said, I might be reading into it a bit, but the timing and notions just seem weird. For instance, going back to the summary (emphasis mine):

    The reason it has taken so long for the robotics industry to move forward is because people keep trying to make something that is cool but difficult to achieve, rather than trying to find solutions to actual human problems.

    This is pretty clearly posturing on his part, since he has to be aware that none of his Roomba products can navigate stairs, an extremely basic and common component of building interiors. It's obvious that his products are not offering "solutions to actual human problems", or at least not to all of the problems, and he's scared that others will realize it too. It's good that he is, since his company isn't set up to deal with it, from what we know publicly.

Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth. -- Nero Wolfe

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