BOSTON — Mark Tilden loves solar-powered robots. He invents them like transistorized sausages and sets them free by the dozens in his house in New Mexico. Silently, they clean floors, kill flies, and do kitchen chores.
But Mr. Tilden says if you read the above paragraph imagining his robots as big, with human characteristics, or attacking you in the middle of the night, then a hundred Hollywood movies have conditioned you to think robots have nasty attitudes and a cyborg head.
According to many robot scientists, this latent mistrust of robots is a pervasive cultural problem. As robotics and intelligent machines are poised now with amazing possibilities to transform daily life, the bump in the road to acceptance is not technology.
Just as personal computers were not embraced by the general public some 20 years ago, robots could use a little domestic respectability.
Also, they are up against old-fashioned resistance to change.
"When my mother comes to visit," says Tilden, a laboratory scientist in biophysics at Los Alamos National Laboratories in Los Alamos, N.M., and ever jocular in his seriousness, "I have to put the robots away. She's afraid they will attack her in the middle of the night."
Tilden's tiny robot collective is the gentle opposite of mean, as are nearly all of the robotics applications moving out of universities, companies, and experimental labs today. Tilden is one of the leaders in the trend to down-size robots, free them from computers, and sometimes turn them loose in cooperative teams, or alone, to do a task or look for tasks to do.
Tilden's robots use transistors and old parts from Walkmans; some are skeletal, erector-set shapes and move slowly on wheels. Some look like butterflies. Some have brushes. One responds to whistling.
He says with pleasure: "They are a robot ecology, slow and elegant."
Tilden has also created a robot that found an unexploded mine and intentionally stepped on it, illustrating yet another robot application to serve mankind.
Industry in the US has had no problem embracing robots in recent years. The Robotics Industries Association (RIA) in Ann Arbor, Mich., reports record sales of industrial strength robots, a hefty $1.1 billion in l997, and a 136 percent increase in sales since 1992.
"Small, medium, and large companies in just about every industry are taking a fresh look at robots," says Donald Vincent, executive vice president of RIA, "to see how this powerful technology can help them solve manufacturing challenges."
Not to mention robots applications in space travel, elderly care, law enforcement, agribusiness, military uses, grass-cutting, meteorite hunting in Antarctica, and more fantasy in the entertainment world.
Next generation of robots
Still, pioneers in robotics, like William "Red" Whittaker at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh know it's an uphill road to turn vision into marketplace reality. "You can't underestimate what it takes to shift the culture," he says. "It calls for a fresh generation, a heroic mix of competent peers and partners to push all this to the next level."
Generally speaking, the next level is almost here as seen in some applications - selected out of many - that can be cited as forerunners of a robotics future just around the corner.
In Sacramento, Calif., a Shell gas station is experimenting with a robotic arm that opens a car's gas cap and fills the tank with gas.
In Japan, the Robo Shop Super 24 uses robots exclusively to deliver selected food to customers.
In Hartford, Conn., at Hartford Hospital, a battery operated Helpmate Trackless Robotic Courier named Seymour gets on and off elevators by itself 24 hours a day, and delivers meals, medical records, and supplies throughout the hospital. Seymour, about four feet tall with storage shelves, radios ahead to have the elevator waiting. Nearly 100 hospitals across the country use Helpmate Robots.
"Before Seymour we had three people as runners," says Don Reynolds, director of Food and Nutrition at the hospital. "Now we lease Seymour 24 hours a day for around $6 an hour. After staff training, and after a few weeks, the naysayers got on board. I think we would have a hard time trying to do without Seymour. In fact, we are thinking of getting another one."
That kind of acceptance is what Joseph Engelberger hopes ripples through society. Mr. Engelberger, the acknowledged "father of robotics," is the chairman of Helpmate Robotics in Danbury, Conn. He is a tireless advocate on behalf of the readily available technology today that comes together in robotics to benefit mankind.
'A gentle and precise touch'
But unlike Tilden, Engelberger thinks home-based or personal-task robots will "of necessity be somewhat anthropomorphic ... with a gentle and precise touch."
Tilden blames science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov for this "anthropomorphizing of robots." He says Asimov sent a generation of scientists, along with Hollywood, in the direction of creating robots that mimic humans in shape and mobility.
"But huge and complex robots, as fascinating as they are, have not yet proved their total efficacy in the real world," Tilden says. "And they are basically expensive."
Tilden says his little robots should be classified as "robobiology," creatures whose initial task is to survive successfully (find sunlight in the case of solar-powered robots), and then evolve to perform tasks for mankind. They are not pre-programmed. "What I am trying to do," he says, "is come up with a branch of technology that acts as the interface or the equivalent of biology."
Takeo Kanade, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, says this approach has a long way to go. "The big challenge, in addition to the instrumentation, is developing them with power, mobility and action capability," he says.
"You have to coordinate them to do certain tasks, and that is difficult to do."
Undaunted, Tilden and his associates created the BEAM Robot Olympic Games to encourage improvement of the "robo-genetic stock" and go public with the concept to invite anyone to participate. This means anybody with basic electronic knowledge can build these little critters to perform a variety of tasks.
BEAM stands for "Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics and Mechanics." "I want to go from the bottom up," Tilden says, "by building simplistic machines and having them evolve. I've been living with these robots for eight years at home, and I'd say, look at them. Aren't they amazing? Now I don't even notice them unless they are not working."