Despite my self-proclaimed luddite neighbors, family and friends finally incorporating the smartphone into their daily lives, widespread adoption of that particular device is still just getting started. I, on the other hand, am already looking for the NBT, or Next Big Thing, and based on what I see in the smartphone — along with some related technologies — I’m convinced that robotics in the home is it.
To be sure, there are single-purpose robots for the home already available. We’ve had both a Roomba and a Scooba in our home — one vacuums, one mops — and several million of these have been sold since 2002. A countless number of entertainment-style robotic toys have hit the scene as well. Back in 2004, we added an R2D2 Interactive Astromech droid to our family and the li’l fella has provided hours of fun: He dances, plays hide-and-seek and of course plays back memorable sound bites from the Star Wars franchise movies.
So robots in the home aren’t necessarily a new concept, but the ones I envision in a not-too-distant future will leverage various technologies of the smartphone, thanks to advances in chips, various sound and sight sensors, wireless broadband and software.
If I only had a brain
Mobile handsets today have a “brain” — the processor that powers the device. Nearly all of those brains run on the ARM platforms — low-cost, energy-efficient chips. Higher-end smartphones are currently using 1 GHz CPUs, which allow for reasonably fast processing in a small package that doesn’t require much electricity. Think of the iPhone 4, Droid X and other current handsets that use this chip architecture and consider what these devices can do: browse the web quickly, run fairly complex software and provide digital entertainment. While a single ARM chip isn’t likely going to power a complicated, multi-purpose robot — it would take a more robust computing platform to handle multiple physical tasks — the CPU found in many smartphones could easily be the brains behind a useful single-purpose robot. Think of roving robots that monitor your home with a webcam or fetch the newspaper each morning for you.
At first, I thought the ARM platform too anemic to handle the needs of a robot. But I recently broke out my son’s LEGO Mindstorms NXT robotics kit. The controller that powers robots you build with the kit is a 32-bit ARM7 design, similar to the one used in the original Game Boy Advance. Though the chip it uses is nearly a decade old, the LEGO Mindstorms NXT can power robots ranging from one that solves a Rubik’s Cube to another that plays Guitar Hero (better than I can!). My son is already finding his own ways to use this meager brain for specific tasks — here’s a short video he made to show off a robotic hand he built:
With the advances in processors from 2001 to today, as evidenced by the smartphone, cheap ARM chips can provide a fair amount of intelligence to a home robot. And high-end chips are only going to get more powerful; by the end of this year, expect to see dual-core ARM CPUs running at 1.5 GHz or faster. Put another way, as the brains of smartphones become smarter, so too do potential robots and the tasks they can accomplish.
Of course any robot worth having around the house will need to gather input and provide output. Humans do that all day long; much of the data we share is done through our smartphones as we update social networks, watch or create videos and communicate with others through email. And today’s handsets have multiple and far more advanced methods of input and outputs than we had just a few years ago.
Indeed, looking at the phone of today, I see several technological “senses” that could be leveraged in robotics. That eight megapixel camera integrated in your phone, for example, is basically a vision sensor, or a rudimentary eye. Every handset has a microphone (or two), which equates to an ear, always ready to listen for our voice in a phone conversation. Many smartphones accept verbal commands through the microphone as well — I use the speech-to-text feature of my Google Nexus One handset daily.
Of course, we need to hear sound from our smartphones, be it from phone call or the latest MP3 file we just downloaded. The smartphone speaker and headset jack offer a voice, providing audio feedback and output for programs, phone calls and music enjoyment. This Android-phone powered Tankbot is a perfect example. Using simple voice commands via an older G1 smartphon, you can tell the Tankbot to move forward, back, left or right. With the right programming, the possibilities for voice controlling a home robot become limitless. I’m imagining my robot of the future to read important emails to me when I wake in the morning, for example, or the three top news stories in world that broke overnight. Maybe I’ll ask for my daily schedule to be read aloud so I have a sense of what the day will bring me.
What about apps?
But there’s no point to a home robot that doesn’t do anything; that’s where applications and programming enter the picture. Software gives purpose to our smartphones and can do much the same for robots. Depending on the operating system, smartphones have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of mobile apps to run. Robots powered by the same chips and OSes as smartphones could run these apps and more. In fact, programmers that code for smartphones today could seize an opportunity and code for robots tomorrow. Although not every robot has to be mobile, one of the advantages of such an automated machine is that unlike a smartphone, a robot can be programmed to move on its own. Developers could leverage location-based applications, GPS chips and other standard smartphone functions to design more advanced programs for home robots.
And we’re no longer required to have a computer science degree and years of experience to program apps, thanks to simple toolsets and a wide variety of do-it-yourself books that teach the basics. With the right tools and some tinkering, programming a home robot to fetch the newspaper is a real possibility. In fact, the recently introduced Google Android App Inventor environment, with its block-based approach to programming, reminds me of how one creates software for a LEGO Mindstorms robot — it’s simple enough that anyone can give it a try.
My robot will be connected
In the home, a Wi-Fi network is becoming the norm. Simple robots from a decade ago might not have had the luxury of a wireless connection to the cloud, but the robots of tomorrow can use 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi connections to learn and gather information. Think of the data you gather from your desktop, laptop or smartphone — email, news, contact information and media files. Now consider what an intelligent device like a robot could do with that data. It could monitor how much dog food you have left for your pets and automatically place a bulk order for more over the Internet, for example. With so much usable data on the web, a connected robot essentially can tap into a bigger source of intelligence for data, just as we do on the Internet every day.
A perfect example of added intelligence through such connectivity is the voice-controlled Tankbot I referenced earlier. Since storing a vast array of variable voice commands would require more memory than an inexpensive robot can provide, the device requires a connection — voice files are collected, sent to Google’s servers and the interpreted results are returned through the web.
The above example is just the beginning though. The information store of a robot needn’t be limited to a small amount of on-board memory. A web connection to access Google’s “brain” would make a robot so much smarter. Think of this way: Where do we go when we need near-instant access to information? I hit Google or another search engine. There’s no reason that, in the future, a connected robot couldn’t access the same information as needed in order to provide assistance and convenience in our daily lives.
Take a good long look at that smartphone in your hand or pocket and you might begin to see why robots are the NBT. Handset technology has advanced at a rapid pace and shows no signs of slowing down. We’re growing increasingly more reliant on the information our smartphones provide, but a device that physically acts upon that same information could add a multitude of benefits. And not just for the sake of entertainment or convenience, but perhaps eventually for areas of life like personal healthcare and monitoring energy consumption in the home. After that could be AI, or Artificial Intelligence, but I won’t go quite that far — yet.