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Nolan Bushnell

So Says

May 18, 1986|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Carla Lazzareschi is a Times business writer

Nolan Bushnell, 43, invented the first commercial video game and founded Atari and the Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors. Now he's moved on to high-tech stuffed animals. He predicts that his microprocessor-controlled Petsters will evolve into domestic robots indispensable to American homes. Q: How will robots fit into our future? A: I think robots will probably be the most important change that happens between now and the year 2000. Robots are already making an impact, but it's an unseen impact. It's an impact of increased quality of products and decreased costs. You would be paying significantly more for your car today if it weren't for robotics. Q: Do you truly think people will own robots the way they own VCRs and microwave ovens? A: Yes. I believe robots will start out as novelties and will become more and more functional until they will become as indispensable to your home as an electric dishwasher. They will start out with the ability to bring you things. They will talk to you. They will answer questions. I think of the robot as being amorphous, a little bit like the computer. Some computers only play games. Some do spread sheets. It will depend on the accessories you put on it. The easiest thing to have them do is vacuum the floors. Picking things up and washing windows are difficult tasks and probably some of the last things they will do. Q: What form will they take? A: For cost factors, the robots that will be in the home within the next 10 years will have to be wheeled. They will have to be cute and have a personality, because it will be important for them to be as entertaining and fun as they are useful. Whenever people aren't used to something, they think of it as a toy or a novelty. And so, these will start out as entertainment. Ultimately, though, they will not be toys. They will become utility devices. And that's the point at which we will become dependent on them. Q: Why didn't your robot, Androbot, introduced in 1983, sell well? A: We were unable to hit the price point and the function that we wished at the same time. They were selling for $2,000, and they didn't do much. They talked and ran around the house. But we could never get them to run around the house without getting stuck in a corner. They were . . . too dumb and too big. In this day of litigation, they posed what I call the Ming Vase Problem: You've got this dumb robot running around the house, and it knocks over the Ming vase. Q: Your electronic cats and dogs, the Petsters, are available now for $40 and $100. Will they evolve into robots? A: Yes. Why should we assume that the market should start at the highest point of evolution? I decided a domestic pet was the appropriate point to reintroduce the robot to the home. No one asks if it can do windows. Nobody asks, "What does it do?" It's an entertainment device. Also, there are a huge number of people who would love to have pets but can't. They have allergies, rent restrictions and life style considerations that keep them out of the pet market. So we've identified a demand, and we're able to fill it. Is the Petster as good as a real cat? No. It's not as smart. But it will be. In seven years we'll have a Petster that's smarter than the real thing. Q: How else will your pets evolve? A: They will evolve in their ability to know where they are. Right now a (Petster) doesn't know whether it's in the kitchen or the living room. They will also be given speech so they will be able to tell you what time it is. We'll give them barks and meows first. But then they will have human speech: English, French, German or whatever your language is. But it will be in what I call dog or cat dialect, just to keep it understandable. You've got to give them personality. "Woof, woof. How was your day?" The thing that I don't want is for me or the world to take this too seriously. This is fun. Q: Are they entertainers or are they servants? A: A good servant should be both. Q: You sound like you owned a plantation in some prior life. A: Hey, robots are servants without guilt. Q: You've said that half the nation's pet population will be battery - powered by the end of the century. Is that as toys or as companions / servants? A: I'm talking about companionship, but with certain servile functions. The pet is not going to be limited to pet-like actions. We can synthesize anything that people want. Obviously, tail wags and barks are easy to do. Determining the difference between friend and foe is going to be tough, so a guard dog is probably going to be much more difficult to duplicate. Q: You've said that Petsters have four moods. What are they? A: Happy, sad, angry and pensive. For example, when he's angry, he tends to be confrontational, and he'll come up to you and meow in his angry voice. When he's pensive, he wanders back and forth. If he's happy, he does pirouettes and spins around. Q: But can you program personality? A: I think I can. What you're talking about is a form of artificial intelligence. We can make them somewhat grouchy when their batteries are low. We can make them so that they know when they've been to a party with a high noise level and when they've been asked to do joke telling and all that stuff. We can program it so that every morning after they've had that experience they'll be grouchy. Now the question is: Is that real personality? In a way, the answer is, "Yes, it is." But it also has a very artificial look to it because we have predetermined that it's a behavior pattern that will be believable. Robots for a long time will have that element of what I call synthetic personality. But then they will progress to where there is a very large memory that programs itself in various ways based on the sum amount of its experience. Maybe the robot ends up in a house in which there's a lot of hostility and the robot gets yelled at a lot. Based on the pre-program, he can react to the hostility either by becoming recessive and subservient, or he can become aggressive and angry in return. Or he could run away. Q: Is a Petster anything more than a novelty item? A: For adults it's a novelty. It's a lot of fun for a while, for parties, that sort of thing. But don't just think about what is. Think about what will be. One of the first things we say a robot is going to be able to do is tell you how your stock portfolio performed on a given day. He'll know all the stocks that you own, and so when you come home he'll have already inquired of Dow Jones, and he'll know whether you made money or lost money. So he'll greet you at the door with a little tray: champagne if your stocks went up, beer if they went down, and, if they went down a lot, just a .45. Or, you'll wake up in the morning and it says: "Good morning. It's Tuesday, March 5. The weatherman is forecasting rain. I might remind you that you have a 9 o'clock appointment with your banker and a dentist appointment later. Don't forget it." Q: But how many people will really want, let alone need, these devices? A: Remember that no marketplace ever has 100% penetration. If you've got 250 million people, and you get a 1% market share, that's 2.5 million units. And if they cost $100 each, that's a big business. You only have to convince a small portion of the population that they want something--and remember, we're selling wants right now; we're not selling needs.

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