Me and my robot

With Mattel’s development of Hello Barbie the talking doll that can recall conversations, iRobot Roomba selling on Amazon for $450 and Savioke’s room-to-room hotel delivery robot taking the floor to rapturous applause at Intel’s Developer conference, 2015 is the year that shopping for a robot became a lot more real.

No longer just popular subjects for tv shows and movies, robots are walking into our lives and, in my experience, they’re doing just fine. As a teaching tool, they are excellent, particularly when it comes to teaching programming. Touchable, noisy and instant, robots make programing come to life, as Wonder Workshop’s Co-Founder and CTO Saurabh Gupta explains: “Robots are a tangible interface that makes it easier to collaborate on programming projects and allows children to be creators.”

Block programming Dash

Block programming Dash

Wonder Workshop encourages children to discover coding through capable robots that can sense their environment and can be programmed wirelessly using a touch device. When designing their flagship products Dash and Dot that help children learn programming, the company’s aim was to make a robot specifically tailored to delight. “We want a product that is a learning tool and a toy,” he says. “It is something children can have fun with right at the start. And the more they build with it, the more they find out about the experiences they can have.” Built to work with iOS and android tablet devices, Gupta says Wonder Workshop’s development focus is building apps that will work for all future robots.

Alongside being great educational playthings, robots can be of real value as a tool for those looking after people with special educational or care needs. With their capacity for unlimited repetition, robots can make infinitely ‘patient’ assistants and work well alongside caregivers and teachers, as long as their controls are self-evident and easy to implement.

When it comes to robot design, robots that have been tested so far show that human-like is a better choice than human-clone: we like to look at things that remind us of ourselves but go too far and you risk repelling the humans you are trying to please. It seems we are ok with a pair of blinking eyes but no skin or hair please. For robot design company Aldabaran that manufactures the knee-high robot Naorobot, the focus is on interaction. “We want to design machines that people want to engage with,” says Nicolas Rigaud, Head of Communities at Aldebaran, as he introduces the naorobot. “This robot can adapt its language depending on who it is talking to – the older grandparent, or the grandchild.”

Aldabarn has had success in Japan with a 4-feet-high robot called Pepper that interacts with customers, creating a marketing buzz and increased sales by getting shoppers to complete purchases while still in the store rather than waiting until they went home to make the purchase online. But Rigaud sees the potential beyond this. The main challenge for developers wanting to create apps to be used for robots, he says, is to manage the expectations of the audience. Although the robots of Hollywood fame are super-human, Rigaud says it’s worth reminding ourselves and consumers that this really is still science fiction. “Robots can do a lot of really practical things, but we need to find logical entry points, like helping a consumer with limited tasks in a shop,” he explains. “Robots can make your life easier,” he says, adding that healthcare is the next logical step.

As Tully Foote from the Open Source Robotics Foundation points out, modern robots are more aligned to a machine like a modern car than a smartphone. “A phone or tablet is part of a robotic system because the easiest way to control a robot,” says Foote, who is the Platform Manager. Offering open source technology like MoveIt software for mobile manipulation, ROS supports developers wanting to create advanced robotics apps and integrated robotics products for industry and commerce.

So in a time when shopping for a robot is a reality, what are the limits? As yet, robots can’t absolutely copy or anticipate the complicated behaviour patterns of humans – car drivers behaving erratically changing lanes, for instance. The many minute gestures we make – for instance with our hands to turn a door handle – are hard to replicate faultlessly. Although sensors on robots are highly-sensitive, how quickly a robot can react to the information it gathers is limited by its being a machine. So though an autonomous car may ‘see’ a fence, it may not be able to stop itself in time to avoid ploughing through it.

The fact is, we are not yet nearing technological singularity, where robots can improve themselves to the point of perfection. They will break, their motors will need replacing, their bugs will need fixing, their technology will need improving. And in order to do that? Well, they’ll have to ask a human.

Claire Comins is a kids media content creator who has found robots a great theme for inspiring kids in a classroom and makerspace environment.

Links for teachers:
Programming robots with Codemaker Club

Wonder Workshop Dash and Dot

Savioke hotel robot

Aldebaran Naobot