Finally, a robot to fetch your beer

ER1: Soon, automatons able to do specific tasks will be available for homes.

May 30, 2002|By Christine Frey | Christine Frey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Want another cold one? Don't get up.

Just show the ER1 robot - essentially a laptop computer on wheels - an empty bottle and it can scoot across the room and pick out a Heineken from among cans of Coke and Mountain Dew.

After grabbing the beer in its mechanical claw, the 2-foot-tall ER1 returns with the brew and a pleasant "Here you go."

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, humans have dreamed of intelligent machines to perform mundane chores. Industrial robots have assembled cars for years, putting the same weld in the same spot hundreds of times a day.

But household robots such as Rosey from The Jetsons have been difficult to develop because the average three-bedroom house is infinitely more chaotic than the controlled environs of a factory floor.

The $500 ER1, developed by Evolution Robotics of Pasadena, Calif., and unveiled last week at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, looks and acts more like personal robots of the future: "Much more mundane, much more useful and much more simple," said Bill Gross, CEO of Idealab, which spun off Evolution this year.

Capable of performing 99 distinct behaviors, the ER1 can grab things from the kitchen, greet visitors at the door, find keys and snap photographs of the baby sitter. Unlike personal robots such as Sony's AIBO dog, the ER1 is the first mass-produced automaton to perform at least nominally helpful tasks.

Experts say Evolution Robotics might do for the personal robot what Microsoft did for the personal computer by setting a standard operating environment in which others can innovate. The company expects early adopters and hobbyists to develop applications for the robot, much as software developers did for the first personal computers.

Once Evolution determines how people use the robots, the company plans to release models pre-programmed for specific purposes - say security or elderly care - this year.

The personal computer eventually found its place in the home and office, but it is uncertain whether the personal robot will be as welcome. Unlike a PC, individual robots likely will have specific purposes. Even with advances in processing power, sensors and object recognition systems, designing a machine capable of completing even a relatively modest list of diverse chores is prohibitively complex.

"I don't think there's a concept of a general-purpose robot for the home ... like there is for the general-purpose computer," said Jean-Claude Latombe, director of the Stanford Robotics Laboratory. So, one machine might mow the lawn, another would vacuum the living room floor, a third clean the kitchen.

"The idea is not one single butler, but you can think of it as an army of little butlers," said Maja Mataric, director of the University of Southern California Robotics Research Laboratories and a member of Evolution Robotics' scientific advisory board.

Christine Frey writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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