Look out, Roomba; here comes ChinaBot
The little robot with brains, courtesy of Chinese workers
Roomba, the automatic floor vacuuming robot, may enjoy a bit of cult popularity, but new developments in China are expected to really spark the home robot market in the US by this Christmas. Tens of thousands of families are likely to welcome ChinaBot into their homes. ChinaBot is a small robot that stands two-and-a-half feet tall; has a lightweight, inexpensive body made mostly of tough plastic; can walk up and down stairs; and is remotely-operated by workers in Shanghai, China.
Manufactured by Teleserv Inc. of San Francisco, ChinaBot will provide a cheerful live-in servant to help with household chores. But, unlike the clumsy Roomba, ChinaBot will have the brain power of a real human being to ensure that it is quick and effective.
What can it do? ChinaBot is strong enough to lift 14 pounds. Operators are trained to use it to pick up around the house, do laundry, vacuum floors, load dishwashers, clean toilets, walk your (small) dog... even fetch you a beer and the TV remote.
You can ask ChinaBot to do other things, but there's no guarantee that it will be capable; it depends on the operator. Customers get a handbook of keywords to use that they can be sure ChinaBot will understand, and translators are available to listen in and sort out any confusion.
Most operators understand basic English fairly well, but they don't necessarily speak English very well. So ChinaBot has eight standard responses (including local time and temperature, "I can do that," and "Sorry; I don't understand"), but operators can also type any sentence for ChinaBot to read in its robotic voice. "That keeps the robot sounding the same no matter which operator is working it at the time," says chief technician Alan Ping. "Plus, our research shows that Americans respond better to an artificial, electronic voice than to a heavily-accented Chinese voice."
Operated by 'slave system'
So how does the remote control system work? The robot has a camera and microphone as well as touch sensors that send information to the operator in China. "The operator manipulates levers and joysticks that make ChinaBot walk and move its arms," says Ping. "The robot's hands are operated by a 'slave system' in which the operator slips his or her hands into glove-like manipulators and the robot's hands do whatever the operator's hands are doing. We recognize the irony in the term 'slave system,' but that's what it's called."
The software the operators use allows them to enter notes that other operators will see, such as standing orders to make coffee and toast first thing in the morning. Control for a given robot is passed around among a small group of operators, in order to allow them all to become familiar with the family and their friends and relatives. Operators are trained to make ChinaBot greet all humans with a deep, respectful bow. "Bowing is really a Japanese custom," notes Ping. "But our focus groups seemed to expect it of all Asians. Plus, ChinaBot is too short to shake hands with most people."
ChinaBot is the brainchild of Sanders Drebbel, the son of a Dutch father and a Filipino mail-order bride who raised their son in America. He notes that one of the benefits of the remote control system is security. "No one in China cares how many glasses of wine you have with dinner or what you're saying about your boss," Drebbel says. "And you don't have to worry about a robot sneaking out with your jewelry or cash, as you would with a Mexican."
The little robot is expected to be especially popular as a helper for seniors. "Older folks often need just a little help retrieving and opening things. ChinaBot can do that very well. It can help your grandmother remember when to take her medication." Altho more specialized, such senior care won't cost any extra because those operators will be women, who, Drebbel says, are normally "undervalued" in China.
The technology that makes the remote control system possible wasn't available even one year ago. "The convergence of several technologies made ChinaBot possible," Drebbel says. "High-speed international networking, VOIP [voice over IP], offshoring, and advances in robotics all came together in China, where unskilled labor is available at 45 cents an hour."
At that rate, an American family can have a ChinaBot available for 12 hours every day for about $160 a month—less if the owner turns ChinaBot off while the family is away at work and school.
Eventually, Drebbel expects to offer skilled labor for ChinaBots (about $2.25 an hour), so with an advance request ChinaBot will be able to cook a gourmet meal or install a wireless home computing network. Altho, he notes, "Even the basic ChinaBot will help your kids with their math homework. In China, solving algebra problems is not considered skilled labor."
To keep operators busy, whenever ChinaBot is left idle for a few minutes, it switches into standby mode, and the operator is relieved. When you call or tap ChinaBot, a new request is immediately routed to an available operator. When you switch off ChinaBot to go to bed or to work, it goes into shutdown mode and returns to its charger; then you are not charged for labor until the robot is turned on again. You can even set ChinaBot to turn itself on automatically, such as half an hour before you wake up.
ChinaBot will sell for around $400. "We kept the materials inexpensive and the electronics simple," said Drebbel. "The technology is really in the service: wireless connectivity to the base, network connectivity to the Internet, and a connection in China that lets the operator control the robot in real time."
He notes, "The great thing is how upgradeable it is. Any part of the system can be replaced with a new and improved piece without disturbing the rest of the system." Drebbel's Shanghai office can upgrade their software or their hardware controllers and still be backward-compatible with your existing ChinaBot; or you can get the latest ChinaBot and the Chinese operators can start taking advantage of the new functions whenever their software is upgraded.
That will be important when ChinaBot 2 comes out a year or so later. Expected to retail for around $1,100, it will be three feet tall, have an aluminum skeleton, and be able to lift as much as 28 pounds. "Don't expect him to help you move furniture," jokes Ping, "but ChinaBot 2 could definitely help you redecorate for the best feng shui." Could ChinaBot 2 be licensed to drive a car? "I don't think that's very practical," Drebbel laughs. "It will still be very short and have limited vision. But maybe with ChinaBot 3...."
In a subsequent communication, Sanders Drebbel asked that we remove descriptions of possible "ArmyBot" and "LoveBot" products.
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