Roscoe has been working for almost a year as a nurse's aide in the Danbury, Conn., hospital. He delivers meals from the dietary department to nursing units throughout the 450-bed facility, scooting through the corridors and onto the elevators with his load of meal trays.
The job is monotonous, but Roscoe doesn't complain because he is a robot and in a cutting-edge career. Not only is he breaking barriers with his experimental hospital job, making his rounds without the help of wires or tracks, he also may be paving the way for the world's ultimate robot: a versatile home servant.
Says his creator, a futuristic technology entrepreneur named Joseph F. Engelberger: "Our company is looking ahead to a robot that would be able to perform fundamental household tasks like clean the bathroom, scrub the floors, dust and vacuum."
And yes, he says, it will do windows.
The notion of a home robot making its rounds with the Windex sprayer is a far cry from the early vision of the robot, which entered popular culture in the 1920s as a grim symbol of the dehumanized machine age. Throughout the 1930s, technocrats saw the robot as a metallic monster threatening millions of jobs, and science-fiction writers unleashed menacing extraterrestrial giants.
But, by the 1950s, Isaac Asimov's short stories in "I, Robot" and other collections were endowing robot characters with human characteristics. Today, our collective robotic fantasies are measured against the kindly androids R2D2 and C-3PO, George Lucas' classic creations in "Star Wars."
Lucas was creating science fiction, but Engelberger's vision is for real. With financial backing from a heavyweight group of home product manufacturers, his Transitions Research Corp. in Danbury is gearing up to produce a household servant by 1991, a "two-armed, mobile, sensate robot."
The project is Engelberger's passion. "We have studied all the demographics; we have done focus groups," he said in a rapid-fire telephone conversation. "The full-scale, all-bells, all-whistles model is about 30 months in development, and we have some target markets."
He predicts that Homebot will a big big-ticket consumer item in the 1990s. "You start with the innovators, not the conservative people. In 1991, the consumer will decide between getting another Mercedes or a robot. By 1997, the decision will be between a Volkswagen or a robot."
That may sound like Orwellian fantasy, but Engelberger, known internationally as the "father of robots," has a track record. After producing the world's first industrial robots, starting in 1962, he sold his pioneer company (Unimation Inc.) to Westinghouse five years ago. Now he has moved into the service robot arena. And \o7 service \f7 is the buzzword these days in a fledgling industry whose technology is changing so fast that even attempts to define a robot can set off a debate.
"Service robots really is a new field," said Jeffrey Burnstein of the 200-member National Service Robot Assn. in Ann Arbor, Mich. "We describe ourselves as an emerging industry, because what's starting to develop is the useful application of the technology in several non-industrial areas."
Few Service Robots Now
Burnstein defines the service robot as a "non-manufacturing robot--anything outside the factory. We don't have a count, but right now there are very few service robots out there." But, he added, there are lots warming up in the wings.
Some experimental service robots already are working at such daytime jobs as delivering office mail and such nighttime jobs as security patrolling of factories. And robotics engineers are exploring roles for robots in everything from flipping hamburgers to fighting fires, from assisting in brain surgery to cleaning up hazardous waste. By the 1990s, robots are expected to play major roles in space.
"These new service robot applications are what everyone is talking about," said Doug Bonham of Michigan's Heath Co., which manufactures two educational robots, of which Heath has sold 14,000, mostly to universities and vocational training centers. Hero I, a little like R2D2, is a 3-wheeled vehicle with a single arm and keyboard in the top. The Hero 2000 is larger, with an arm that has a sense of touch.
"The emphasis in the past," said Bonham, "has been industrial robots, but at the robotics trade show this year the action was at the service robot pavilion."
One of the major displays at that show was the new voice-controlled personal robot work station from Prab Robots Inc., long known for industrial robots. One of its new systems enables quadriplegics to have access to the telephone and, with a computer, a host of other outlets in the outside world. The second, still in development, is a computer and robot arm that provides a monitored exercise program for stroke victims.
"The advocates of service robots are a fanatical bunch: It's almost like spreading the Gospel," Bonham said. "The magic is back!"