“If you build a specific-purpose device for every single chore, then you’re left with a hundred specific-purpose devices, which clutters up your home but also 99 of which will be sitting idle while the hundredth one is being used,” Sidd Srinivasa, associate professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, tells Digital Trends. For the past 11 years, he’s been working on Herb, a robotic butler, focusing on robotic manipulation. Right now, robots are good at performing single, repetitive tasks, like in auto plants. The challenge is getting bots to perform many different tasks in the chaotic home environment. “That’s sort of in some ways the Holy Grail of robotics, robotic manipulation in human environments,” he says.
Getting Herb to do something that seems as simple as take an apple out of the back of the refrigerator requires the integration of perception, machine learning, control theory, and motion planning. It’s not a task you have to think to hard about, but Srinivasa says, “that’s a beautiful and delicate balance between your hands, your sensors, your vision, your controllers.” Mimicking these movements is no easy feat. “Manipulation is really, really hard, because physics is hard,” he says. “If you make a small mistake, then you may break something.”
It’s part of the reason Herb, over the course of his life, went from being a two-piece robot, one of which had a single factory-robot-style arm and the other was a Segway with a table attached, to a two-armed machine that has a head and still cruises around on a Segway. Instead of sticking with the factory model, Herb has become more anthropomorphic to deal with the world we live in. No one knows what the robot of the future will look like, says Srinivasa, but it will be easier if resembles humans, because we’ve designed everything around ourselves. Imagine a larger-than-life spider-bot trying to get through your front door.
Herb started out as an autonomous assistant that would perform chores in every household, but for the past few years, Srinivasa’s focus has shifted to helping those with spinal cord injuries. “If you look at technology that’s out there now, a lot of people build technology that makes abled-bodied people more abled,” says Srinivasa. He’s working with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to get robots like Herb in homes, helping those with physical limitations.
This presents a different set of challenges, because the robot has to interpret information coming from joystick or brain-computer interfaces, then execute the commands. The idea isn’t to build a robot that is completely autonomous and handles everything on its own; instead, Srinivasa sees robots as partners.
Not everyone shares that view, of course. There’s a bit of unease with many Americans when it comes to inviting a robot into the home. It’s a cultural thing, Srinivasa thinks. Whereas many Japanese grew up with heroes like Astro Boy, a crime-fighting android, in the U.S. they’re viewed differently. “In Japan, there’s a sort of cultural affinity toward robots as being caregivings as being helpers, whereas in the United States a lot of the movies that we watch with robots end very, very badly,” he says.
Yet we all have robotic systems in our homes and cars, even if we don’t call them that, Srinivasa points out. Your car might correct itself if you start drifting out of your land or help you parallel park. Smart home devices are creeping in, as well. Several appliance makers are putting cameras inside fridges, so you can check on whether or not you have milk. Eventually, the fridge could figure this out for itself and order it for you. “Those are all pieces that go into a robot, but they’re sort of disembodied” in the fridge, he says.
In the next five years, Srinivasa hopes to have some Herb-like bots inside the homes of people with spinal cord injuries. You might have your own home robot, too, but it will just be in several different pieces like Herb once was, and disguised as an ordinary object.