Wednesday, July 30, 2003

So Why Build a Bipedal Robot?

Monday, I fingered Honda for flubbing the answer to the reasonable question "Why Build a Bipedal Robot?" Their answer, "Because we want to help people" is a nice warm and fuzzy sentiment, but not exactly the sort of thing you'd publish in The Journal of Applied Robotics, nor particularly enlightening to the audience. It's too bad, too, because there's a perfectly good answer. It's probably what they had in mind, and they certainly implied it in their other slides, but never quite came out and made it real.

We live in a bipedal world. Humans are bipedal, and we live in a world of our own construction: stairs, door handles three feet off the ground, light switches four feet up. Chairs that bring your head to a certain height, and tables and desks accessible to your hands when sitting. It's so obvious that we may never think it consciously, but a vast majority of the time, we are living, acting, interacting, and existing in constructed reality. This fact, of course, is why there had to be legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act; because not every human really is functionally bipedal, and the world -- really, the human-constructed world -- is pretty unfriendly to those on wheels.

So the answer to why build a bipedal robot is because you're trying to build a robot that can live in humanity's world, and you have to be a biped to do that. A dog could go up stairs, but he couldn't turn on the light switch. There are additional benefits to bipedalism, most notably as demonstrated by Honda, that we humans will regard bipeds as a peer social actor. (Have you seen that video where a dog goes nuts because Aibo is trying to get at a hunk of meat? I'd like to see a gorilla beat the snot out of ASIMO.)

The irony here is that many of the functions of the world -- light switches, doorknobs, etc. -- are features of a pre-robot world. If you've got good enough robotic technology to build ASIMO, you could just as well embed that technology in things like doors and lights, and make them respond intelligently to human needs. In the movie Honda showed, a helpful ASIMO carried a newspaper and a cell phone over to a woman in a chair. Excuse me, but I could figure out a way to have her talk on the phone without leaving her chair for a lot less than $100,000. It's as if, in 1900, a brilliant engineer had the idea of using automobiles to carry hay along for the horses you were riding. In this sense, ASIMO is backwards compatability for the human-built world; reality as legacy app. But do we really need this compatability, or would it be better to forge a new construction with this new technology?