- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

A self-willed, 6-pound Frisbee on wheels probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of vacuuming the house, but that could change. Which shows that robots may be better if they're, well, sort of dumb.
Roomba (www.roombavac.com/) is an automatic, battery-powered vacuum cleaner. You put it on the floor and go away. It earnestly rushes about, cleaning. When it has finished, it stops.
Cute, but so what?
Any kid who has followed science fiction knows that robots are supposed to be immensely complicated things with lots of computers and optical sensors. They act like people and probably have ray guns in holsters. They also don't exist and aren't going to for a long time.
If you read the technical press, you will have seen many experimental robots over the years that try to be the science-fiction variety. They have such things as three-dimensional video cameras, lots of computer power, sonar, and software to interpret visual images. Some of them can walk, and cost fortunes. Others can navigate around a room, but not very well, and they do it the hard way, by brute technology. They aren't real practical.
What makes Roomba interesting is that it navigates more or less brainlessly. Brainless is good in robots, at least if they still do what they are supposed to do, because it translates into "cheap."
Roomba, instead of thinking, obeys a programmed sweep algorithm. For example, part of what it does is simply to move in an expanding spiral until it hits something, which it then follows. After a while it starts moving in back-and-forth sweeps. Depending on the size of the room, which you can set to small, medium or large, it keeps doing this for 15, 30 or 45 minutes.
It has the things you would expect in a vacuum cleaner, such as a side-spinning brush to sweep dirt away from walls so the machine can suck it up. But as far as high-tech is concerned, there just isn't much. A wall-sensor lets it know when it has bumped into a wall, and another sensor keeps it from suicidally falling down stairs.
With my unerring instinct for technological practicality, I thought, "Yeah, sure. It'll never work." Then I ran into a piece in Wired magazine (one of the more interesting and well-done tech sites on the Web) in which Leander Kahney actually tested one. The conclusion:
"Remarkably, it works. The Roomba did an admirable job of clearing hardwood floors coated with a generous sprinkling of cookie crumbs, candy wrappers, paper scraps, dust, dirt and other debris." So much for my unerring technical instinct.
No cameras. No ultrasonic sensors. No vast computer. Just an intelligently designed search pattern. Roomba doesn't know where it is, where it's going or what's out there. It doesn't care. And it costs $200, instead of the price of an aircraft carrier. Call it minimalist robotics.
That is what a faction of the research community thinks is the best approach, at least for many applications. Making a human-looking robot is a fascinating challenge, but for practical purposes, a better bet may be equipping the robot with a few simple rules. Simple tends to mean reliable, providing that the rules are chosen well.
Two visions of the robotic future are the dumb-but-useful, exemplified by Roomba, and the humanlike but difficult to build, such as that pale guy on Star Trek who thinks he's an android.
A third is what Rodney Brooks, who runs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's artificial-intelligence lab, calls "pervasive computing." As he sees it, we one day will have microphones, speakers and cameras built into rooms so that we will routinely interact with them by, for example, speaking. It isn't what most people think of as robotics, perhaps, but it is certainly doable, given that it is experimentally being done today.
I'll bet on the simple but useful.


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