Divining AI, and the future of consumer robotics

Sebastian Thrun led his Stanford team to victory in the DARPA robot-car race. How long will it be till we see such cars on the street?

Last fall, Sebastian Thrun led the Stanford University Racing Team to victory in the DARPA Grand Challenge, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"Stanley," Stanford's robotic car, drove autonomously across 131.6 miles in the Mojave Desert. With its car averaging 19.1 miles per hour, the team took first place in the challenge, completing the course in six hours and 53 minutes--11 minutes faster than the second-place robot led by the team from Carnegie Mellon University.

Recently, Thrun was named a Fellow by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence.

CNET News.com sat down with Thrun to talk about artificial intelligence and the future of consumer robotics.

Q: Communications and information technology have advanced tremendously in the private sector over the last 50 years. But aside from products like the Roomba vacuum cleaner from iRobot, consumer robotics are not that visible to the average person. What, if anything, has been holding back the field?
Thrun: I think there are a number of factors that are still in the way. The most important one is cost. We can build wonderful applications at a price point that's completely unreasonable for a consumer to afford. And there has been an obstacle in robustness. If you look at robotics as a field, you can roughly group it into three different stages.

The way this will go into the marketplace is through a sequence of driver systems. Systems that will get more and more capable, so that at some point we all realize that we have a self-driving car.

Division one is industrial robotics. We have robot arms that very effectively operate on factory floors--about a million dollars apiece and they do something in very controlled environments.

The second group is professional service robots like the type that is being used to map the Titanic--or robots in space and robots in the military. They have to deal with more uncertainty and more diversity in their environment. Yet it's still somewhat regulated, and of course they cost more than a normal person could afford for a housemate robot.

The last stage--and I think there is a good of number of them--is commercial service workers. That is what is commercially available.

But since you asked about consumer robotics, well, we are not there yet. I think Roomba is a fantastic step in the right direction, but we still need to wait a little bit.

Briefly, what are needed to make a home assistance robot a reality?
Thrun: I think more robustness in perception and a better understanding of, for example, the domestic environment. Today's robots don't do very well at understanding what objects are in your kitchen, for example, or what people's intentions are and how to run a dishwasher. There is a huge perceptional problem, something people take for granted but robots have a really hard time with. It is called scene recognition. Scene recognition takes an image and labels the different objects in that image. A 4-year-old can do that, and still robots cannot do that very well. That's a burden, because as you go into a domestic environment, you find that the first step in moving an object is to recognize.

The second part that we are missing right now is in manipulation. We have made a lot of progress in navigating robots--the Roomba is a navigating robot that happens to pick up dust on the side--but none of them have to do something interesting with an arm. And the science of manipulating objects is in its infancy at this point. This (manipulation) is a big AI field, too.

What are the next likely applications we will see in consumer robots?
Thrun: Certainly the cleaning field will take off, and I hope we add arms to these robots so that they can carry things around in a domestic environment. Maybe clean up after a party, you know? Then I think you'll see in the domestic area robots being used for the care of elderly people. There are many different incarnations of that idea. And one could argue for a robot that's just an operational device for some health care professional, or some relative can interact with an elderly person through the robot.

I think the Roomba is a mix of curiosity and cutting-edge technology and actual utility. It's not the world's best vacuum cleaner, but it's incredibly cool to have a robot vacuum cleaner.

Can you expand on that?
Thrun: Suppose I want to make sure that the stove is switched off and windows are closed in my grandmother's apartment. Wouldn't it be good if I could have a robot where I could just log on to the robot remotely using the Internet, check things out, make sure the fridge is closed and so on? That's one possibility for interaction. There's a whole field of more social interactions, where people--mostly in Japan--are exploring robots to be kind of a companion.... I am ambivalent about this because it gives me a strange feeling to think about the future of human interaction as being humans and robots. But at the same time...elderly care is in such a disastrous state in this country that a robot might be the better alternative to a television set.

Then of course the last answer I give you is one that I am enthusiastically behind, and this is self-driving cars. It's something that I think will change this art fundamentally. And it's very technologically feasible and price-wise feasible.

You've said again and again that your goal is to produce self-driving cars. Aside from military use and safety reasons, why do you think this is so important? Why not just make cars that implement safety features to avoid crashing?
Thrun: If you work toward a self-driving car, you automatically work toward a safer car. I tend to say when I talk to the automotive industry that a self-driving car is the ultimate driver's assistant. I don't think that they are mutually exclusive. In fact, I don't think that the technology I have worked on for self-driving cars has a market right now. I think the way this will go into the marketplace is through a sequence of driver systems. Systems that will get more and more capable, so that at some point we all realize that we have a self-driving car.

What do you think the next likely applications will be?
Thrun: Today you have applications like active cruise control that keeps the distance fixed for you, and it will brake for you and accelerate. There are lane-departure warning systems that are being improved. There is in the mix, and already demonstrated, a number of parking assistant systems that park the car for you at very low speeds. There's technology in development to be an emergency brake system for you, so that when the car realizes that a crash is inevitable, it still tries to act for you in a way that diminishes the impact of the crash. There is just a progression of things going on at this very moment. So to predict that cars will become more and more intelligent doesn't take rocket science; that is just a realistic observation.

What do you think is driving these likely applications? Need? Novelty? (As in the case of the Japanese social-interaction robots.) Or is it driven by people like you because that is their interest?
Thrun: All of the above. In robotics there are amazingly many different driving forces.... People have always dreamed of having a robot, and (they) treat robots as something special, different from any other machines. For instance, to some extent a dishwasher is a robot, but people don't figure that a dishwasher is a robot. There is this decades-old dream of a robot as a replication of ourselves. There is a lot of work in robotics that (involves solving) our problems, for example, like driving cars. The benefits are very obvious. I think the Roomba is a mix of curiosity and cutting-edge technology and actual utility. It's not the world's best vacuum cleaner, but it's incredibly cool to have a robot vacuum cleaner.

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