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Can we invent a robot that will do everything for you?

Can we invent a robot that will do everything for you?
Charlotte Hay from Greater London (Aged 5-14)

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2 Responses

  1. Hello Charlotte

    I assume you mean a kind of ‘butler’ robot, that would be able to do everything from helping you with school work to cooking your dinner, or tidying your room. I’m afraid that, right now, we cannot invent such a robot, although it may be possible in the future (but not for some years).

    The reason is that a general purpose intelligent butler-bot, like the ones in the move i-Robot, are very hard indeed to design and build – and way beyond our current technology. The main reason is not the mechanical design because we can already build quite life-like person sized ‘humanoid’ or ‘android’ robots. Thus, we can already make the butler-bot’s ‘body’.

    The problem is butler-bot’s artificial ‘brain’. Although you might think that some of the tasks that you would want your butler-bot to perform are quite simple, like making the bed for instance. In fact, even these simple tasks are very complicated indeed. Take something that you do all the time without thinking about it: taking a carton of milk from the fridge and pouring some into a glass to drink. For a robot, even one with robot arms, hands and eyes, the process of ‘seeing’ the fridge, the milk carton and the glass, and then working out how to move its arms and hands in order to pour the milk into the glass without spilling it all over the place is incredibly complicated. To see how complicated it is here’s a simple experiment you can do yourself. Ask you brother or sister, or a friend, to pretend to be a robot. They will not move at all unless you issue very precise commands, like ‘move left arm up 6 cm’ or ‘open hand’. You will quickly find that even getting them to move their hand to the fridge door handle, gripping it, and then pulling to open the fridge, takes loads of precise commands. And a butler-bot would have to work out how to do all of this on its own.

    For these reasons, most current robots are not general purpose robots that can do everything, but robots that do only one thing. A good example is a vacuum cleaning robot, like the Roomba. I think that we will have more and more robots in our homes in the next few years, but these will not be general purpose butler-bots, instead they will be much simpler robots that just do one or two things, like cleaning the floor, or keeping watch on your house if you’re away, or perhaps helping with weeding your garden.

    I hope this helps to answer your question.

  2. I assume by “everything” you mean all the things we don’t want to do! I think we’ve already managed to build machines to do lots of tasks more efficiently and quicker than we could without them, like washing machines, lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners. These save us all a lot of time so we can concentrate on things we find more fun and interesting. Another reason for using machines is that it allows us to “do more” with our limited time.

    However, these machines we have invented tend to be fairly “stupid”…we still need to operate them. I think what you would like (and many other people!) are machines which can do things without us being involved. For example, someone has invented a vacuum cleaner that can learn the floorplan of your house. Apparently all you need to do is switch it on and it will clean your house for you! Here’s some more information:

    http://www.irobot.com/uk/

    Unfortunately you still need to recharge it, change the dirt bag and help it out when it gets stuck behind the sofa. A truly “intelligent” machine which can recharge itself, take it’s own dirt bag to the rubbish bin and not get stuck still seems a long way away from really existing. It seems that being intelligent is a fairly elusive thing.

    As humans, we have so far under-estimated how difficult it is to design machines with their own intelligence. Every single task – such as vacuuming the floor – requires a great deal of knowledge of the task in hand and good judgement and planning for the future. Although we take these things for granted ourselves, it turns out designing machines with these attributes is extremely difficult.

    I do not think there will ever be a single robot to do all tasks well, but I do think we will be able to design machines to do particular tasks effectively. I think the “irobot” above is an example of a robot that may do one task well and other tasks badly.

    My one question back to you is whether you would want to rely on a robot to do your tasks for you. Whilst I would be happy for a machine to help out more with some tasks, if I was making some food for my family or writing a letter to a friend I would be far happier to do it myself, as I would know it is being done properly.

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