This humanoid can take care of your dirty socks. And dirty dishes, house cleaning, and other domestic chores. That's the goal of Anybots, a Silicon Valley startup founded by Trevor Blackwell. The company has been in the news before, but the whole thing is so intriguing we dispatched Automaton correspondent Anders Frick to get more details on the technology. Here's his report:
Economists like to say that the one kind of work you canâ''t move offshore is personal service, but what if remote-controlled robots become practical?
Trevor Blackwell loves robots, the humanoid kind that populate old sci-fi movies, and like many other roboticists, he thinks there may be a role for them to play around the house. He differs from most, however, in the economic rationale he offers.
Blackwell sees a future in which a low-paid worker from India might remotely control a robot in your kitchen, taking on tasks that today might be assigned to a servant. Blackwell believes that this is the Next Big Thing, and that thousands of homes will be using his robots to clean, cook, and serve meals. This scheme would effectively allow rich countries to import labor -- without the laborer.
To realize that vision, Blackwell founded Anybots in Mountain View, Calif., in 2001, after his last company, Viaweb, was bought by Yahoo for US $45 million in 1998. Blackwell is also a partner in the startup funding firm Y Combinator, which has invested in nearly 60 different startups during the last three years.
He is currently testing both a legged robot, named Dexter, and a wheeled one, named Monty. They now perform only a few, limited tasks, such as serving coffee and operating a hammer drill. It turns out Montyâ''s the nimbler of the two. â''Robots with wheels are both faster and more stable,â'' Blackwell says.
Each robot has a built-in gyroscope in the torso, position- and force-sensors in the joints and fingers, and magnetic motion sensors in the arms. Their moving parts are actuated by pneumatic plungers and valves, powered by electricity from carbon aerogel ultra capacitors that can go half an hour on a charge.
The 16 cameras carried on different parts of the robotsâ'' bodies supply video to 10 remotely placed monitors. In the beginning, Blackwell says, engineers and technicians will use the robots to steer in particularly dangerous environments -- say, the site of a nuclear or chemical accident. Such work should get the kinks out. That way, when robots go into mass-production for the consumer market, they will be sufficiently reliable, and perhaps also toxic waste-proof, which might come in handy when dealing with some people's dirty socks.