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Monday, February 1, 2010

Tremble before DISHZOR!

People are often surprised them when I tell them that my favourite robot is the dishwasher. Not Megatron or ASIMO or the roomba - just your ordinary, garden variety dishwasher.

You see, there isn't much of a consensus regarding what defines a robot as a robot. Some people think they need to be humanoid. Others feel that robots should include sensors and actuators. Computers and software are often mentioned.

One of the broader, but generally well received definitions is that a robot is a machine of some sort, capable of performing tasks on it's own. Begrudgingly, most people will admit that this would include dishwashers. And washing machines, printers and even modern cooking appliances.

Thats right - robots have already invaded your home and you didn't even realise! Insidious!

I think one of the reasons that these everyday robots have slipped under our radar is that we don't have such high expectations of them. We assume robots should be smart, since they are capable of performing the same tasks which humans can - but we tend to assume that tasks which are difficult for us are difficult for everyone.

Sci-Fi has led us to bestow a level of expectation on a robot which is based on their appearance. For example, dog shaped robots tend to be about as smart as actual dogs, despite the fact that their positronic brains could make them just as smart as a human. Robotic bugs will behave exactly like real bugs would, even though they have no reason to seek dark places or put on threatening displays.

In the case of dishwashers, we tend to assume that machines shaped like large bricks will have an equivalent IQ. That's probably why I find this so much less impressive than it actually is.

It's no small feat, but it just seems that a multi robot system like that should be capable of so much more.

This phenomenon also means that as soon as you give your robot a humanoid form, people suddenly have much higher expectations. I think this is why modern demonstration robots are given infant-like designs - if the robot reminds people of a five year old, then they will be that much more impressed when it walks without falling over or grasping objects.

So if you are ever trying to demonstrate how smart your robot artificial intelligence is, remember to make it look stupid so that people will be extra impressed. It also helps to avoid the uncanny valley.

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