Willow Garage, the now-disbanded Silicon Valley robotics incubator, unleashed some of the most impactful robot technologies of the past half-decade. Today, this formidable legacy lives on, in great part, through a host of Willow spin-offs that remain at the forefront of robotics. This article is not about them.
It’s about a Willow Garage project that was, at one point, on the verge of being spun out of the incubator, but is now all but forgotten. The project, called Heaphy, recognized that robots were still too limited in what they could do autonomously, and that instead of improving artificial intelligence, an alternative would be relying on more human intelligence.
Heaphy aimed to recruit people online and train them to operate Willow’s powerful PR2 robots to carry out everyday tasks like serving drinks and collecting trash. The remote operators would be paid for their work and could be anywhere in the world, using only a web browser to control the robots. Thus the idea of crowdsourced telerobotic labor was born.
To be sure, the notion of a stranger halfway around the world commanding a robot servant and doing your chores for you sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. But as it happened, Heaphy demonstrated that that concept could potentially work in the real world.