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Universal Design For Robots

This is a article that discusses a compromise robotics companies deal with when designing robots.

Quote: " ‘There are two approaches to building robots,’ says Maya Cakmak, a researcher at the University of Washington. ‘Make the robot more humanlike to handle the environment, or design the environment to make it a better fit for the robot.’ Cakmak pursues the latter, and to do that, she studies so-called universal design — the ways in which buildings and products are constructed for older people or those with disabilities. Robot can’t handle the twisting staircase? Put in a ramp. As for that pesky doorknob? Make entryways motion-activated. If you want droids at your beck and call someday, start thinking about robo-fitting your digs now."

This struggle between engineering the robot to handle the environment vs. engineering the environment to handle the robot is part of a larger set of considerations that robotics companies must deal with in design. The short version of that compromise is how much should humans adapt to their robots vs. how much should robots be designed to fit humans?

The human world is designed for us. It’s designed to our constraints, such as having door handles on doors because humans have hands and can easily manipulate door handles to open and close doors. Thus, in order to make robots fit seamlessly into the human world with little or no adaptation on the human part, robots must be engineered to be human-like (e.g. giving them a means to manipulate door handles so they can operate manual doors). Making robots human-like can lead to a costly robot because, in the door example, the robot must be equipped with a gripper, motors strong enough to rotate handles & move doors, software to detect the handles, and the dexterity to wrap their gripper around the handle successfully. That’s a set of engineering tasks that can lead to a costly robot because what is simple for a human can often be difficult for a machine. The alternative solution would be to engineer the environment by installing a door that the robot can manipulate via the internet, or by installing an automatic (motion-activated) door like is found in many supermarkets.

Can we use pets as models? Humans adapt their lives to meet their pets’ limitation and needs. For example, some people install doggy doors to give the pet more freedom and the owner fewer interruptions. We already know that some humans are willing to adapt their lives to their robots. A good example of this is the “virtual wall” strips that iRobot makes for their Roomba vacuum cleaning robots. The strips are placed in the home as a virtual boundary for the robot, similar to invisible fencing for dogs.

So, how do we as robot designers find the ideal balance between the engineering cost and the willingness of humans to change their world to accommodate their robots? Some of these challenges in making a human-like robot (e.g. walking) have not be solved yet. How do we make the compromise when the complex challenge has not yet been solved? Should those features be delayed (not included) until we solve those challenges, or are alternatives acceptable until the challenges have been solved?

In the article, Cakmak suggests modifications to a home to make it more robot-friendly.

  1. Open floor plan, wide hallways, and low-pile carpet to make navigation easier for the robot
  2. Adding landmarks like RFID tags and fiducials around your home to make localization for the robot easier
  3. Trading in round objects that the robot must manipulate (e.g. dishes) for rectangular equivalents that are easier for the robot to grip
  4. Adding internet-connected devices that the robot can manipulate without pushing buttons manually
  5. Leave more space around floor mounted objects (e.g. tub, toilet) so robots can travel around them
  6. Removing shiny or transparent objects that affect depth sensors
  7. Adding a wireless recharging station to your home so your robot will always have power
  8. Installing flat handles on manual doors or automatic doors that robots can control without manual manipulation

Which of the suggestions would you be willing to incorporate into your home to accommodate a robot?

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A lot of food for thought with this. I can’t imagine most people will be willing to do much modifying of their current living spaces, BUT this seems like a potential opportunity for architects and builders of new homes… “Come live in fabulous Shiny Acres, a robot-friendly community for everyone!” :grinning: