Monday, February 10, 2014

Robots -- every home should have one

Sir James Dyson wants to develop household robots that can take on all our household chores. No more cleaning, putting out the dustbins, or replacing lightbulbs – what bliss. 

I hope his robots last longer than his vacuum cleaners.
We went through three of them in as many years, with their purple plastic bits and bobs, until our cleaner finally put her foot down and insisted on a nice old-fashioned Miele with a bag, which is lighter, seems to be more powerful, and has just passed its 5 year warranty milestone without incident. Now that the warranty has expired, though, it will almost certainly contract some terminal illness in the next fortnight. 

Dyson should be warned that robots are, intrinsically, unreliable beasts. I know this at first hand, having created and produced Robot Wars for the BBC. 

Of course these weren’t strictly robots at all, but bits of electric wheelchairs and remote controlled cars bearing vicious weapons like chain saws and axes. 

We had this vision of geeks with weird machines that ran around on stage doing clever things with deadly armaments. These were awesome creatures of mass destruction, which is why, for the first episode, I wanted the robots to make a grand entrance with tumultuous applause from a rapturous crowd. Jeremy Clarkson was the host. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, ready to do battle, our ultimate warriors of doom, the robots!” he cried, over the whirring of blades and popping of lawnmower engines. 

The music swelled and the huge curtains beneath him opened to reveal a pall of smoke through which the lights picked out the first contestant – a small circular biscuit tin on wheels. The crowd went wild. 

“Cue the robot”, I shouted to my crew and, after a tense few seconds, the biscuit tin spun round in a little circle, lurched forward and promptly fell off the stage. 

The crowd went silent, the roboteers standing in their little booth went red with embarrassment, and the warm-up man came on to tell some jokes. Twenty minutes later, the bot was ready to go again. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, the robots!” went Clarkson. 

This time, as the curtains opened, the crowd cheered even louder and the tiny robot, its shiny metal exterior rather dented by its encounter with the studio floor, responded by doing absolutely nothing at all. 

As did the next four robots over the next two and a half hours. 

In desperation, I sent out the props man for a roll of fishing wire. So it was that, later that evening, after the disillusioned audience had gone home, we dragged each one on stage in turn and dubbed in the applause and music later. It looked great on the television, though if you look closely you might make out the odd glint of wire as they process grandly round the arena. 

Later during that first episode, one of the house robots very nearly decapitated Jeremy Clarkson when its circular saw blade blew off at 3 million revs a second and embedded itself in the concrete wall directly behind his head. No wonder he didn’t want to present Series 2. Robots are not to be trusted. 

This was the show that switched Britain’s children onto robotics, and probably inspired some of the very research brains at Imperial College to whom James Dyson has just donated £5million. They’re setting up a lab to try and create “a new generation of robots that understand the world around them.” 

Dyson wants robots that see and interact like humans. If I had one of his new robots at home right now, all it would be able to see or interact with would be huge white removal boxes. There’s a giant maze of them stacked up in every room of our new home. 

Of course if Dyson’s robot had a handy circular saw, it could quickly go round opening all the boxes, and then with its new eyes could see where on earth we can put all this junk that’s already filled every cranny of the house. Isn’t that what robots are good at doing – putting things into small spaces? 

I reckon even Dyson’s genius would have trouble with this task.


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