John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · 17 November 2003
Computer Science is Pivotal for Robotics
I made this point in my talk before the Northeastern U. ACM chapter in April and I think it is worth repeating: computer science is pivotal for robotics. If you read the popular or trade press on robotics you will see the emphasis is on hardware advancements like better power supplies and artificial muscles, but hardware is not what is holding back robotics. If we could simply take full advantage of the hardware we already have we could switch from human-centric manufacturing to robotically-based industry.

The two bottlenecks where computer science is needed are sensory kinetics and plan modeling.

Sensory kinetics involve the ability of robot to perceive and react to changing conditions. If you touch a hot stove you instantly draw back, but a robot is not so smart. The latency in the feedback loop which informs the robot of a potential problem and the robot's inability to recognize and react quickly to a threat restricts the applications and performance of robots in many ways. Imagine hitting a pitched baseball. Your whole body is a symphony of motion coming together at the pinpoint of contact. Organizing such complex motions in real-time 3D is currently way beyond the calculational ability of current robotics software. This is a pivotal bottleneck for robotics.

The other key area is quite different: modeling. Whenever a robot is put to work a human needs to set its priorities and show it what to do. How does the human teach the robot what to do? The human must create a model of reality for the robot and show it how to react given the various things that might happen in that reality. Creating software that makes this teaching process simple and straightforward is an open problem. Many common applications that would seem simple to you like sewing are complex enough that they defy attempts at modeling and teaching. The robot might mechanically be able to do something but we cannot give it the knowledge to do so. This is the problem of modeling.

If we could solve these two problems in even a basic way virtually all high-output manufacturing and agriculture could be switched over to robotic labor and make life a paradise for many people.

Developer Diary · · bio · Revised 17 November 2003 · Pure Content