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New Housekeeper Is Maid of Metal

Technology: Robot competitors clean up at the American Assn. for Artificial Intelligence national conference.

September 26, 1997|Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Sure, people are impressed when the Mars Pathfinder rover rolls around the red planet examining rocks. But teach a robot to find the remote control or vacuum the living room and you'll see real excitement.

Enter "Slick Willie"--he can fetch mugs, a pill bottle, even a bunch of plastic grapes.

"It can do cucumbers and carrots too," said Kansas State University professor David Gustafson. "But they're artificial ones."

It seems the smooth-moving Willie--named after university mascot Willie the Wildcat--doesn't always know his own strength. Your food could end up squashed.

Willie was one of the down-to-earth robots grabbing coffee cups, serving snacks and telling jokes at the recent national conference of the American Assn. for Artificial Intelligence.

"One of the criticisms of academic research is that we don't work in everyday situations," said event organizer Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology. "So this year, we tried to establish more of a relevance to real-world tasks."

More than 20 teams entered the conference's sixth annual Mobile Robot Competition.

The barrel-shaped robots--equipped with video camera "eyes," laptop computer "brains" on top, and sensors that keep them from bumping into walls--ranged in size from 1 to 4 feet tall and bore little resemblance to the automatons of science-fiction movies.

Although Willie is not quite as advanced as Rosie, the robot maid who keeps house for "The Jetsons," he can help out around the house.

Willie glided through a demonstration living-room set and grabbed whatever was typed into the keyboard on his head. He finds the correct item by determining its color and shape, Gustafson said.

In the future, robots like Willie will help people who are paralyzed, Arkin said.

Amadeus, a "vacuuming" robot from Georgia Tech, was programmed to spot dirt after people leave a room.

"Sorry, this room appears to be occupied. Going back down the hallway," Amadeus said. He made his way into the next room and said, "Is anybody here? I've found a mess I am cleaning."

The robot made his announcement when he saw paper confetti on the floor. He didn't actually clean it up, however, because he hasn't been equipped with a vacuum cleaner.

"The actual vacuuming is less important than the intelligence behind it," Arkin said.

The biggest hits of the competition were butler robots, which served snacks, played music and told jokes.

"The one thing we didn't allow them to serve was drinks. We wanted to protect the robots from dangerous humans," Arkin said.

A trio of brightly colored robot servants designed by students from Brandeis University in Massachusetts won the popularity prize for serving peanuts and M & Ms.

Equipped with a bowl-shaped apparatus on their heads, they rolled around offering snacks and tipped their bowls into the hands of hungry patrons.

Earth robots have a long way to go before they are as useful as R2-D2 and C-3PO from "Star Wars," but these worker droids have practical applications.

"They may be less glamorous or dramatic, but there's a lot more going on under the hood," Arkin said.

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