Mark GibbsMark Gibbs: Global perfection by bots

Imagine a world that is connected by orders of magnitude more than at present. A world with perfect gardens where there are no slugs, snails, whitefly or weeds. Where no one owns a lawn mower. A world without vacuum cleaners. A world where network cabling is pulled and maintained automatically.

This is a world where useful robots really exist. Robots that are, for all intents and purposes, smart. And it’s just around the corner. The dream of having an army of capable, practical robots to do our bidding appears to be getting closer to reality far faster than I expected.

What has me on this topic is the recent announcement by the Sony Corp. Digital Creatures Laboratory of the “SDR-4X” humanoid robot. This thing is amazing. Walking on two legs, it is 20 inches tall, weighs in at 14.3 pounds and its body has 38 points of articulation, making it capable of complex physical movements. Those movements are controlled by a sophisticated real-time adaptive motion-control system.

The SDR-4X also has a pair of digital cameras for stereoscopic vision so it can negotiate around objects. It can remember the faces of 10 people, recognize emotions from facial features, and understand continuous speech. Wow.

When it comes on the market sometime this year, the SDR-4X will cost about the same as a small car. But like the Sony robot dog, Aibo, the price of the SDR-4X will plummet with increasing sales.

And then there’s the new 500-pound watchdog robot from Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. and the Slugbot from the Intelligent Autonomous Systems Laboratory of the University of the West of England – the commercial pressure to build useful bots is mounting.

So what will these devices be capable of doing? Labour. Silent, round-the-clock, good old-fashioned tireless labour. Armed with something like scissors, a small robot the size of Sony’s SDR-4X could precision-cut your lawn. Just think, you will never see weeds again. And for that matter, you’ll never see dead flowers because the bot will remove the flowers when they pass their peak.

And as the bot goes about its work it will kill any whitefly it finds, destroy slugs and apply fertilizer. And that’s just the garden! You’ll never hear a vacuum cleaner again because the house bots will silently sweep and polish all night long.

We’re going to have these robots everywhere – municipal bots sweeping streets and digging ditches silently. There’ll be scores of housebots and officebots cleaning, sweeping, repairing and guarding. And all of these bots will communicate with each other.

Your bots will know all about you. And your neighbour’s bots will know about your neighbours. And you’ll want your bots to coordinate with your neighbours’ and the municipal bots to keep all of the perfect yards perfect. We’ll want to know that if there’s an emergency our bots can get the message out via other bots. All of this means that the bots can and will “gossip.”

The potential for surveillance will be vastly increased with so many smart devices running (literally) around.

I could fill several columns extrapolating the impact that robots could have on our culture and economy.

But there’s one thing I still haven’t figured out: Will I have more free time?

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (U.S.). He is at [email protected]

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