[HISTORY] If we’re in the future, where’s my personal robot assistant and mind/computer link?

picture of 2 B.O.B. robots and an attached picture of woman with headband using MindLink

B.O.B. (1983) and MindLink (1984) at the Consumer Electronics Show

Here are two pictures from the Consumer Electronics Show taken in 1983 and 1984…31 and 30 years ago, respectively. The picture on the left is of B.O.B., short for “Brains On Board” (clever, huh?), billed as a “personal robot assistant” from creator Androbot, one of the first companies funded by Atari creator Nolan Bushnell‘s Catalyst Technologies Venture Capital Group (one of the first venture firms to focus on high tech in the way we think of it today). B.O.B. was designed to be the smarter younger brother of the earlier Topo robot. Topo was sold as “a mobile extension of your personal computer,” and (no surprise) required an external computer to do the heavy-duty processing it needed to roll around. Topo sported some pretty impressive specs for the time: 3 8031 microprocessors, wireless communication to your home PC via infrared link, 5 slots for additional sensors,  and even limited speech capability.

handout for Topo personal robot

Topo handout

Unfortunately as a “personal assistant” Topo was pretty lame. He really didn’t have much in the way of any sort of attached manipulator (arm, hand, etc.) and didn’t come standard with any sensors, so he really couldn’t do more than roll around on his two angled wheels (check out Topo’s bottom in the picture above) while being remotely controlled by a person sitting at their Apple ][+ personal computer. Topo might have made for a cool party trick but he was a long way from The Jetsons Rosie.

image of robot serving cake to Jetson family

Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons

The right half of the CES picture at the top of this post shows a woman using MindLink, a never-released controller for the wildly popular Atari 2600 video game console system. Billed as a controller that let you use your mind to control the action on the screen, in reality MindLink used sensors to read muscle movements in the player’s forehead. Unfortunately a gaming system basically controlled by one’s eyebrows never really took off because early testers complained of headaches induced by forehead muscle strain. However, according to this article from the Atari Museum site the headband controller could be strapped to a “bicep or thigh” and users could be trained to use those muscles to control simple Pong-like games. Fun, huh?

image of teenager using mindlink

MindLinkin’ it solo, 1984 style


So where have we gotten in 30 years? Where are the robots we were promised? Why aren’t we “jacking in,” using our minds to control our computers rather than typing on keyboards that haven’t changed much since the first “dumb” CRT terminal hit the market  back in the 1970’s?

Possibly a lot closer than many of us realize.

While household “servant”-type robots aren’t exactly everywhere, special use home robots have become pretty common. Manufacturer iRobot has sold over 8 million floor-cleaning robots since the Roomba was introduced in 2002 and millions of other “domestic robots” have been sold over the years from a variety of manufacturers for tasks such as floor cleaning, pet care, and even ironing.

But the real robotic action has been taking place outside the home. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“UAV’s” or “drones) have taken over many of the roles traditionally relegated to human-piloted aircraft in the military and are now starting to become more common in the civilian world . Amazon has even announced that they’re going to start limited drone-based delivery soon, though we’ll have to wait and see what that looks like.

Land-based robots have also come a long way. Lead by innovative firms such as Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google), the new batch or autonomous ground-based robots are a far cry from ol’ B.O.B. of 30 years ago.

Boston Dynamics’ “WildCat”

Boston Dynamics’ “Petman”

Honda’s ASIMO

Besides the creepy “uncanny valley” feeling that comes over many of us when we see these increasingly life-like robots, one of the most interesting developments has been the move in robot development away from the idea of the general purpose, human-like  “mechanical men” of the past which strove to replicate humanity to today’s development of specialized robots designed to do things that people can’t do in forms that bear little resemblance to humans. Sure, ASIMO might resemble Verne Troyer in a space suit, but it’s pretty clear from its leg joints that we’re not looking at a diminutive person. And yes, Boston Dynamics’ “Petman” does creepily resemble a soldier in full CBW (Chemical and Biological Weapons) gear, but that’s because it’s been designed to test clothing designed for humans…not because Boston Dynamics was trying to replicate a “man without a heart” like the TinMan from the Wizard of Oz. Today, form arises from function: floor sweeping robots are flat discs because they work better that way: Rosie the Robot of The Jetsons would have just as hard a time vacuuming under furniture as the humans she was modeled on.

In many ways the development of robotics over the centuries from concept to mechanical automaton to the drones of today tells us a lot about the desires and aspirations of humanity. Homer called them “Golden Servants,” robots better than humans, forged by the gods to serve the gods. Golems of the early Talmud could only be created by those closest to God.[editor’s note: added after the first comment]  Early Chinese artisans developed complex, human-like automata designed to mimic humans by being better at humans, even when playing as an orchestra. Leonardo used his knowledge of mechanics and human anatomy to develop robot knights powered by linkages modeled on human tendons and muscles. Artisans of the 16th and 17th centuries carried on Leonardo’s fascination with humanity and the power of science and technology to build increasingly complex “model humans” (or “androids” as German alchemist Albertus Magnus dubbed them later in 1727) such as the “mechanical monk” built around 1560. Automata of the 18th century reflected the Humanist spirit by attempting to re-create artificial people who could write, draw, sing, and play music. The Industrial Age brought about its own mechanical marvels designed to do work better and faster and cheaper and more productive than the troublesome humans toiling in factories or unreliable human “calculators” churning out tables of numbers by hand. As the 20th century dawned and the first World War demonstrated what happens when mechanization is applied to destruction, robots (mostly fanciful creations in theater or film) served as reminders about what happens when humanity is removed from life. Azimov’s “Three Rules of Robotics,” first published in 1940 as the Nazis began to grind up Europe, placed on robots a code of ideals designed to eliminate the chance of robot/human conflict:” 1) a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.”

From Metropolis, 1927

The postwar conception of robots (up until the late 1960’s) were all about optimism, triumphant science, and the ideal of never-ending, universal prosperity. After the horrors of World War II, we wanted to create human-like things that could do the things that humans shouldn’t have to do (cue Rosie the Robot again, always eager to do the dirty housework that Jane Jetson never wanted to do). Science –which had created the atomic bomb, conquered the sea and the skies, and had begun to conquer even Heaven (space) itself– seemed inexorable and omnipotent. When computer scientist Alan Turing defined what was later to be called “artificial intelligence” through the Turing Test (a test that can only be conquered by a computer becoming indistinguishable from a human), the idea that science could create a sentient being wasn’t all that far off. When George Devol and Joseph F. Engleberger met over martinis and decided to form the first robot company (Unimation, which created the first industrial robot, Unimate), they were motivated by a desire to free humans from the drudgery of “putting and taking,” tasks that made up 50% of the work in factories. Their thoughts were of liberating humans, not impoverishing them by eliminating their usefulness. The Industrial Age had finally fulfilled its promise.

Much of the tumult of the late 1960’s arose out of what might have been an instinctual realization that machinery and humanity might not be able to co-exist peacefully.When  2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL decides that it doesn’t need the humans that accompanied it on a trip to Jupiter in order to probe an ancient mystery, the anxiety over HAL echoed the growing anxiety of humans for the machines that seemed to be replacing them and running their lives. Only by shutting down the artificial intelligence is Dr. Bowman (and humanity) able to move forwards to the next stage of human evolution.

HAL decides to do something else

The period from the 70’s though the early 90’s is a time of ambivalence towards robotics. Great technological strides are made by scientists working to make robots more intelligent and responsive to their surroundings. A robot lander conquered Mars when the ironically-named robot  Viking Lander soft-landed on Mars during the height of the US Bicentennial celebration, providing another late reminder to the world of the US technological and scientific superiority. Eleven years later, automated (robotic) stock trading would nearly crash the entire US economy. It was a robotic danger narrowly avoided, unlike the apocalypse brought on by rogue robots controlled by “SkyNet” in 1984’s The Terminator

But while people may have been growing increasingly wary of technology in the 1980’s (we now tend to forget that the video game industry was nearly destroyed in 1983 when the nascent industry overextended itself), the boom of the mid-to-late 1990’s did much to alleviate their anxiety, at least for a while. At the time “technology” seemed transcendent as technology entrepreneurs were rewarded for their efforts by unimaginable wealth. While technology once was scary, now, in the age of the Internet, we’d mastered it and bent it to our will. Robots might still fight, but now they fought for us in Robot Wars. Engineers and scientists were creating robots that swam explored alien worlds, digested food, and even drove us into buying frenzies in order to be entertained by robotic antics. When Honda first introduced the jaw-draoppingly humanoid ASIMO in 2000, it seemed to many that there was nothing that technology couldn’t achieve.

In retrospect, it seems that the 8,000 mile flight of the Global Hawk — one of the first modern drones — in April of 2001 was a harbinger of a new age in robotics. Prior to Global Hawk we’d had robots who served and amused humanity in a way more-or-less compliant with Azimov’s Three Rules of Robotics. When DARPA created the Gtlobal Hawk (which, to be accurate, first took to the skies in 1998), humanity was, for the first time, creating a robot designed to facilitate the killing of human beings through surveillance. In an age suddenly plunged into cynicism and fear by the events of September 11th, 2001, Global Hawk arrived just in time to keep an eye on the increasingly dangerous world we’d found ourselves in. For the technologically based societies  such as the US, the human cost of war had now become more distant. For the less technologically advanced, war was about to become much closer, sudden, surprising, and increasingly hard to resist.

Drone strike footage

Today, more than halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, robots have become increasingly disconnected from humanity. We no longer strive to create human analogues that are more than human or optimistically look towards robots as something that can liberate humanity from drudgery in order to ascend to a higher state. Instead, robots have become de-anthropomorphized others under our control, designed to do the dirty jobs we don’t want to do. From spending hours lingering over a war zone in order to make a kill, lugging war material over rugged terrain,  to sweeping our floors and taking the wheel in order to “save” us from the drudgery of commuting, watching our children, even to cruising through our arteries as “nanobots” in order to clear them of deadly plaques built up over a lifetime of indulgence, robots now serve as a way of separating humans from the consequences of their actions. Is it no wonder that in an age where experience is increasingly mediated through screens carrying ephemeral electronic traces that we have created devices to mediate reality for us?

Double Robotics iPad-based telepresence robot


 Next: Jacking into the mind-machine interface



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[COMMENTARY] Got Google Envy? Read these comments from ex-Googlers


Dreaming of working at Google? You might want to reconsider…

For many, landing a job at Google is the brass ring they’re shooting for at graduation. And with good reason: the perks, the pay (even for interns!), and even the places Googlers work sound pretty amazing, even to the most jaded graduates from the top schools in the world. But is Google all that it’s cracked up to be? Not according to a recent thread on Quora.

Granted, the topic of the thread is “What’s the worst thing about working at Google,” so the answers (many coming from ex-employees) may be a little biased. Here are some of the highlights:

Competition from overqualified coworkers:

It’s hard to get promoted quickly, since the person above you as well as at your level both have great educations and strong work ethics. When it’s standard to be awesome, and the work isn’t particularly tough to begin with, it’s hard to differentiate.

Meaningless work:

Too many great people, doing work that just doesn’t matter, and they’re being paid off not to care in an explicit effort to starve the rest of the valley of extraordinary talent.

 …if you enter the business thinking that you somehow will have a hand in steering that mission, it’s not the place for you. Real decisions are made at the absolute highest levels only. Everything else is finely tuned execution and requires very little thought.


Everyone at Google wanted to be cool. Delivering quickly and effectively was not on anyone’s agenda. In other words, the engineers were pampered and customers were not taken sufficiently seriously.

Unfortunately, in spite of the common belief, I think the average level of Google engineers is mediocre. With a lot of arrogance, too. Everybody believes he (males dominate) is better than his neighbor. So it is really hard to discuss any issue unless it is your friend you are talking to. Objective discussions are pretty rare, since everybody’s territorial, and not interested in opinions of other people unless those people are Important Gods.

One-track mindset:

There is not enough focus on product and visual design. This has led to many aborted/semi-successful products, like Wave, Google Video, Buzz, Dodgeball, Orkut, Knol, and Friend Connect. There is probably too much focus on pure engineering.

Middle-management inexperience:

At other large tech companies, most managers have managed for many years in order to get to senior levels, having hired/mentored/fired many people along the process. At Google, you have a bunch of people who are in senior levels based on tenure since the company grew so quickly. These people don’t know how to manage, and don’t care to manage. Often times they are extremely immature, unprofessional, and clueless when it comes to managing large teams – they have a specific personal agenda for themselves at the expense of those who work for them.


The worst part of working for Google is the people. In order to get in to work at Google you have to be the kind of person who “whoops” when your CEO comes in the conference room. And screams with excitement when they announce “We’ve introduced…searching by pictures!!!” as a new product. You need to think it’s cool to be a “Newgler”. Yes, the old guard in Google like to call themselves Googlers, and when you first join you are a “New Googler” or “Newgler” as they like to call you. And they think this is cool when they tell you that…You have to work with people who tell you that on your first day and get excited about it, in another life they’d work at camp. They tell you that there is no “Management” when there clearly is. They give you no direction, desperately trying to promote some hippy commune working ethos, free will, and go be creative, invent stuff, and then all of a sudden you will find yourself being asked for reports/work/projects that you were previously told were “low priority”.


Feeling better yet? Read more here.

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