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Robot Heads in the Clouds

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A couple of years ago, I wrote Silver Rivers, a novel about a team of archeologists using a miniature autonomous airship to explore the tomb of the First Emperor of China. The tomb, which is a real, unexplored burial barrow in central China, is a large, hollow, underground space larger than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. They had to use a robot to explore the thing because the barrow is full of poisonous mercury, which would pose health risks for any archeologists fool enough to go in. The story further hypothesized an oxygen-poor atmosphere in the tomb that (in the story) killed three looters who tried to get at the treasure buried there.

In any suspense novel, somebody has to die!

The big problem the team had was teaching the robot how to explore an unknown space. Today's robots don't deal well with uncertainty. Generally, a programmer -- usually a human -- has to know everything about the robot's work cell in exquisite detail. The programmer has to think of every situation the robot might encounter, and provide instructions for how to deal with it.

The main problem is that dealing with uncertain environments takes a lot of computing power and data storage capacity. It's more intelligence than mobile robots can carry around in their little mechanical heads, and sucks up more power than they can store in their little mechanical bodies.

Last week researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands demonstrated RoboEarth, which is a system that mobile robots can use to collaborate to solve such problems. Billed as a computing cloud for robots, it provides database facilities, cloud-computing services, and canned software solutions that mobile robots can tap into wirelessly to do whatever they're tasked with doing. Even if they don't have the onboard knowledge to navigate their environment, or the onboard smarts to figure out what to do. All they need is the capability to ask! They also need the physical capability to carry out the commands, but that's just dumb muscle.

The task that was demonstrated was to look around a mocked-up hospital room, locate a carton of milk and a glass, pour the milk into the glass, and hand it to a human "patient" bedridden in another part of the room. It took two robots working together: one to map the space and identify the objects, and a second to pour the drink and hand it to the patient.

Apparently, the robots succeeded in providing the drink to the human. Like the clumsy SCARA robot featured in the Ironman films, however, the poor thing dropped the milk carton after pouring the drink.