Does the World Need Wireless Robots?
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Jan 19 08:45:00 GMT 2005

Imagine a city street, circa 2015, filled with autonomous, Internet-enabled, semi-humanoid robots walking and rolling down the sidewalk amongst their human masters -- cleaning windows, issuing parking tickets, holding the hands of old folks crossing the street. Is it a dream come true or a nightmare?

A robot is the ultimate mobile device. It's so mobile, in fact, that it doesn't need a person to move it from place to place. When you add net connectivity to a mobile robot, you get a powerful (and possibly dangerous) machine. In the next few years, networked robots are going to start showing up in our homes, hospitals, banks, battlefields, and other places that were once the exclusive domain of mammalian bipeds.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is targeting domestic robots as a key industry in Japan, and has invested $28 million to spur the development of humanoid robots for non-industrial use. Masao Kawai, Japan's ambassador to Norway, declared in a speech last year that robotics "will be one of the main pillars in Japanese industry in the 21st century ... humanoids, pet and reptile-like robots are already on the market. And in Japan there are major expectations of robots being able to assist people and society in many different areas, for rescue jobs, nursing and care and as aides for the aged and the disabled, for entertainment and as security guards, etc."

Is this a good thing? I'm not convinced that it is. While I'm generally in favor of new technologies, I'm also skeptical of attempts to introduce technology that has the potential to cause big problems. Here are some of the latest developments in network connected robots:

Going Postal

Later this year, the Korean government will put wireless broadband robots into 200 post offices around the country. Instead giving the robots on-board cognitive capabilities, the researchers are outsourcing the sensing and processing work to central computers via a wireless link. They'll come in "male" and "female" models: the male will serve as a guard and will be armed with a projectile net that it can deploy to immobilize troublemakers, and the female will help customers and display entertaining video clips to people waiting in line. The project, which is part of a larger "Ubiquitous Robot Companion" initiative, is being spearheaded by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which also plans to put 100 domestic robots into houses in the next couple of years.

Along the same lines is the Guardrobo C4, manufactured by Sohgo Security Services. The 9.5 million yen ($87,000), four-foot-tall bot is designed to patrol a facility, looking for suspicious activity or a fire. It sends a wireless alert to a human guard in case of an emergency. Future models will come with fire extinguishers and the capability to throw colored balls at intruders.

In Japan, Fujitsu Laboratories is developing an office-helper service robot that will go on sale in June. It will deliver parcels, operate elevators and patrol buildings at night. When someone asks it a question, it can look up the answer on the Internet and respond by either announcing the answer or displaying it on a built-in monitor.

Carebots or Don't-Carebots?

In many countries around the world, the number of senior citizens is increasing. Many are predicting a health care crisis in which there are not enough people to take care of the elderly. Russell Bodoff, the executive director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST) has been looking at robots as a possible solution. "The reality is, we're not going to be able to deal with an aging population unless we come up with new tools, and robotics is certainly a topic of discussion," he says.

What would a robot health worker do? Take a look at the 10 In-Touch robots being used in health care facilities around the United States today. Designed by a medical doctor, remote-presence robots look a little like ATMs with a flat-panel TV on top. The robots roll from hospital room to hospital room, displaying the face of a doctor or nurse, who can videoconference with patients via a wireless net connection. Doctors can also guide the robots into different parts of the hospital to check on lab results. The video camera allows the doctor to examine X-ray results and make a diagnosis. At $4000 a month, the robots aren't cheap, but by allowing a doctor to save on travel time, they could end up saving money for the hospital.

For elderly people living at home, Mitsubishi has made Wakamaru, a 66-lb, 37-inch helper bot. Scheduled for a 2005 release, the internet-equipped Wakamaru is designed to be a combination watchdog and nannybot. Adult children of homebound elderly folks can control the robot with their cell phone, and have it take a picture to make sure grandma or grandpa is still alive. With the ability to understand thousands of spoken words, it can also be used to assist elderly or disabled people, and will make a phone call or send email if the person it is charged with watching over doesn't respond to it.

Now What?

All these robot projects are interesting examples of a new kind of mobile Internet. And they raise a flurry of questions: Are we ceding too much control to wireless robots? Are we moving too quickly? Do we really want to give them the ability to shoot non-lethal weapons at civilians, even if the robots are wirelessly controlled by a person? Is it humane to use robots to administer care to the elderly?

I don't have the answers. But I'm interested in opening a discussion about it. What do you think about mobile robots among us?