ROBOTS is a Seattle Robotics Society (SRS) column where we pose a set of though-provoking questions to a leader in the field of robotics or technology.

For this premire issue of ROBOTS, we hear the views from Kevin Ross, a past SRS president and very active player in the field of home and educational robotics.

What is your background in robotics?

I have been a hobby robotics enthusiast for about 20 years. It all started about 30 years ago, when I developed an interest in electronics and mechanics. This was before computers were something you could have at home. I learned a lot about electronics and technology all through my school years. After high school, in 1981, I bought my first computer and became interested in programming and controlling things. I built my first completely autonomous robot in 1982, and have been building various machines on and off ever since. My formal education is a degree in Computer Science from the UW in 1988. I joined the Seattle Robotics Society in 1993 and was president of the SRS from 1994 until 1999. I am currently on the board of directors of the Seattle Robotics Society. I have also been a volunteer mentor with FIRST since 2000. My current business interests are in selling microcontroller kits to hobbyists and students. I have been doing that since 1995.

What do you find most interesting about robotics?

Robotics encompasses so many areas of technology. Programming, Electronics, Mechanics. It is the ultimate expression of my interests because it combines most of my technology interests into a single hobby. The hobby is not easy. It has many challenges on many different fronts. It is a hobby that I can easily share with others, and it also allows me the opportunity to share my talents with students.

What are some of the technical issues facing roboteers?

The biggest technical issue is software. We can build some really incredible hardware, but the software to make intelligent autonomous use of that hardware doesn't exist. The software has been, and will always be, the hard part.

How do you see robotics changing over the next decade?

Great question. I would hope that we can solve more of the software problems. However, to be pragmatic about it, the likelyhood that we will make significant advances on our current track is small. We haven't yet arrived at an understanding of what intelligence actually is. We have poor models for simulating 'intelligence', what ever that is. We need the ability to create robots that are capable of learning from their environment and creating their own thoughts and solutions to problems. This is a terribly complex issue that all boils down to not knowing exactly what questions to ask; what metrics to measure things by; how to classify things. For example: What is a robot? We have been arguing about this exact question for years. I know one when I see it, but if I was to write down a definition, it is going to differ from everyone elses definition. We don't have any sort of measurement for the robotic-ness of a system.

How would you react to seeing a humanoid robot, ala Commander Data?

With great awe! To create a machine like a Commander Data would be a stunning achievement. Of course, I would immediately want to take it apart to see how it was constructed!

The idea of having a mechanical intelligence such as Commander Data creates a huge number of ethical questions that we don't know how to handle yet. For example, if you have an artificial intelligence such as this, what are our responsibilites and moral obligations? Assuming it was computer-based, is someone responsible for backing up the computer information in Data? Is it ethical to make a duplicate copy of Commander Data's memory? If I didn't backup his memory, would I be criminally liable if something went wrong? If we had a backup, would it be morally OK to torture Commander Data if we could later restore his memory to its state before the torture? Could I torture a copy of Data if I destroy it when I am done? If I made an exact copy of data, how would his identity be handled? Which copy is the 'real' Data? Is it possible to murder Data if there is a backup?

As mortal, complex, un-copyable unique individuals, we have created an entire social order based on the notion of free will and individuality. With an artificial intelligence, which can presumably be copied numerous times, have its memory dumped for all to see, our long held notions of right and wrong may become partially invalid.

How do you think people would be affected by the widespread use of robots at home and in the workplace?

For the long forseeable future, robots are going to be mostly seen as tools. There are a few robots available for your house already, such as vaccum cleaners and lawn mowers, which are intended to make daily routine easier. Current reality is that the current robot vaccums are not really good vaccums, nor are they terribly great robots!

An argument can be made that we are already surrounded by stationary robots. For example, we have machines that answer the phones automatically and take messages. I have a machine that sits and waits to open my garage door each day. My washing machine already does my laundry, my dishes are washed. All of these specialized robots are doing tasks that used to be done by individuals like house keepers, phone operators, etc.

Once our machines become mobile, they become much more like the robots that you and I recognize. I think they will at first be very specialized robots. They will be considered to be appliances. As they become smarter and more intelligent, specialized robots will give way to more general purpose robots. For example, you can currently purchase a washing machine with a built in dryer. One unit doing what previously took two. I think robots will make their way into our lives in the same way. The robot that mows the lawn may be able to sweep the driveway. It also might someday be able to drag the trash cans down to the curb and back on schedule. It might even pick up the mail. Humans will end up treating these robots as appliances.

I really don't see people having much fear for robots in the workplace or at home. They will accept them just as they have accepted any number of different home appliances in the past.

The difference will be when robots start to show true intelligence that demonstrate learning and creativity. When that happens, or should I say IF that ever happens, these robots would begin to have a real impact on society as we start to wrestle with the issues I described above.

What do you see as being the "killer application" for robotics?

For our lifetime, the killer application for a robot is a telepresence device. Imagine having the furnace repair man logging onto your household humanoid drone over the internet. He would be able to go to the furnace, inspect the device to see what is potentially wrong with it, order the parts shipped directly to your house, and a few days later install the broken part while never leaving his office.

At a different time, a nice little old lady from a village in Nigeria would be able to log into your household humanoid drone and act as your housecleaner. She is willing to clean your entire house for $12, which is a very decent days wage in Nigeria. She may have to pay $2-3 for the internet access for the day, but she made a nice living, and you got your house cleaned. Both parties are very happy. No, or should we say little, fossil fuel was used in the exchange. Good for the environment, good for the global economy. The gardener from China. The window cleaner from Canada. The trash collector from Brazil. The house painter from Peru. The doctor from India.