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Is C-3PO in Our Future?

October 19, 2000|DAVE WILSON |

We all know what the future holds, right? Computers as smart as humans. Five thousand television channels. Robots doing the dishes. But too often we hear pronouncements that we've arrived, when, in reality, the trip has barely begun.

Rewind to last week: Ron Davies and I are strolling across a vast, well-manicured and hilly series of meadows discussing the mysteries of the universe while a mechanical servant quietly whirs along behind us at a respectful distance, lugging our heavy equipment.

As a child, this is exactly how I imagined life would be at the dawn of the 21st century. Robots would do dangerous, exhausting, unpleasant jobs, leaving humans free to live in bucolic splendor and think deep thoughts. If Davies and I were wearing togas and speaking telepathically, we could be characters in an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction novel.

But this reality doesn't come close to that childhood fantasy. Nobody lives here in this particular Eden. We're on a golf course. And that robot following us isn't exactly what most people think of as a robot. It's an electronic caddie designed to muscle golf clubs around the course. And for now, this is as close as most folks are likely to come to a truly autonomous mechanical being.

As a robotic caddie, the InteleCady is really cool. It's not some remote-controlled job. My mechanical buddy runs itself. Most robots today are industrial lugs fixed in one place welding auto bodies for Ford or handling delicate electronic components at Intel. The caddie stands about 5 feet tall--with much of that height coming from an antenna mast--and wears traditional golf colors of green and white. It roams free on the golf course, coming when called and consulting its internal map to avoid obstacles such as water hazards and sand traps.

The robo-caddie, which Davies developed, does what it's designed to do extremely well. But I find myself focused on what it won't do. It won't advise me on whether to use a seven iron or a wedge. It can't mix me a martini. It won't provide an alibi to my boss if I'm running late. ("Oh, Mr. Wilson was delayed because . . . one moment . . . yes, he had to stop and pull a family out of a burning automobile seconds before it exploded. May I take a message for him?")

Where's Robbie? Where's Rosie? Where's C-3PO?

"You know, on a certain level, this robot stinks," I announce. (Actually, I did not say "stinks" but another word that also begins and ends with "s" that we don't use in a family newspaper.)

Davies, however, is unperturbed by my disrespectful language. Turns out he's used to it. "Yeah," he says with a smile, "I hear that kind of thing a lot."

This from the guy whose company spent about $27 million in the last seven years to build the InteleCady. Davies and others in his company, GolfPro International, think InteleCady fills a pretty fundamental need among golfers.

A full golf bag weighs about 30 pounds, and lots of people can't heave that kind of weight around on their shoulders. Even if you've got a hand cart, pushing or pulling up a hill can prove exhausting for lots of people. This situation has led to the widespread use of electric carts, which purists consider a tool of the devil. You're supposed to walk a golf course.

At a few courses, fat cats can shell out big bucks for a real person to carry their clubs, but most players won't be able to even find a human caddie, much less afford one. And that's why Davies thinks there's a market for his robot. The InteleCady won't be for sale; it will cost about $10 to rent for 18 holes.

The caddie is equipped with a GPS, or global positioning system, which, combined with an extremely accurate map of the course, lets the machine track exactly how far it is from the hole. It's also got a ring of sonar sensors to help it avoid running into stuff; a small bumper kills power to the wheels if someone stumbles into it so it won't run over anybody.

The caddie is smart, brighter than some editors I've had to deal with. It's not allowed on the green--its 160 pounds could damage the smooth surface starting and braking--so when I stepped up to sink my putt, the robot waited a moment and then proceeded to the next tee. There, it parked at a spot where it wouldn't have interfered with other golfers until I was ready to play the next hole.

Despite all this, Davies acknowledges that some people who try the InteleCady are frustrated by its limitations.

"Everybody has seen 'Star Wars.' People ask why our robot won't just hand them the five iron," he says. "They want to know why it doesn't talk, and why they can't talk to it. . . . But remember when cars would say things like 'Your door is ajar,' and everybody hated it? I want to make sure that the technologies we use are the technologies that people really want."

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