Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Your Chef for the Evening Is Rebooting

I was just reading a NY Times article about robot cooks. With Japan, food, and robots, this is an article written just for me. And hey: a pan-handling robot that drinks beer! What’s not to like?

They’re all very cool, representing remarkable technical skill, and probably many long nights in the lab. But I think the reporter is missing the point of those humanoid chef-robots, judging by the juxtaposition of those with the work of the CMU Human-Robot Interaction team.

Allow me to explain in a roundabout way: There are already machines that make ramen (maybe not ones that also have knife-fights, but bear with me here) and otherwise perform many of the other tasks here. For many individual tasks, the use of a humanoid robot or arm robot represents a lack of imagination: the mental agility to imagine how a task would be performed with an unrestricted body type often comes up with far more ingenious and efficient ways of doing it.

In fact, I’d say that very few tasks really require humanoid robots. I can’t think of any off-hand. For any individual task, there will almost always be a better form. But this is not to say that it is a bad idea to develop humanoid robots, far from it. The promise of a humanoid robot, and ultimately the (proper?) motivating factor behind many of these prototypes is the same as the promise of an iPhone or something of that ilk: A flexible device that seamlessly becomes one of any number of other single-purpose devices. This is distinct from a personal computer in some important ways, but right now the primary importance is of *doing* one thing at a time (whatever else it may be *thinking*, if you want to put it that way). By adding more cooking jobs to the general robotic repertoire, they’re converging on a suite of tasks for which the humanoid form probably is better-suited.

Microsoft Robotics also kind of gets this, I think. They ought to, anyway, as it is an analogue to Microsoft’s original strategy and success: of standardizing the slow part (the hardware) to focus on doing as much as possible with the fast part (the software). A humanoid robot (or more simply a single arm) can mechanically do just about any task they might desire (if inefficiently), so if we standardize on that ideal, the software and the logic can take a more central place. It represents a sort of design convergence: when you try to combine tasks into the simplest possible hardware, the more human tasks you add, the more human the hardware is going to look.

As for the people focused on human-robot interaction, there are interesting research questions there, and good science being done. But that research, to my mind, is not so much robotics research as it is human research with some very difficult test equipment: kind of like when zoologists design puppets that baby animals will feed from. (I really wish I could find a copy of a particular Calvin and Hobbes to link to here. It’s in “There’s Treasure Everywhere”, page 148)

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the subject. (And keep in mind that I’ve never actually done humanoid-robotic research, having focused entirely on rover-types, so I could be totally off-base)

Oh! If after reading that article you’re wondering what okonomiyaki is, by the way, it’s often referred to as a cabbage pancake or pizza. It’s... neither, really, or maybe both. I’m familiar with Osaka-style okonomiyaki, but as anyone will tell you, it can vary wildly, especially by region. For me, the little okonomiyaki-ya outside my dorm at Gaidai is the only true form: You take a batter of flour, potato starch, egg, and shredded cabbage, and spread it out on a hibachi table for some high heat, usually spread on top of some kind of meat filling like bacon or shrimp. Flip it once (so the ‘filling’ is now on top), finish cooking, then top it. The traditional toppings, to my mind, are a thick sugary sauce (like yakisoba sauce or BBQ sauce), Japanese mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and powdered seaweed. It’s... tastier than it sounds? I like it, anyway.

One final thing: I’m trying out new blog software -- MacJournal 5 from the most recent MacHeist. The interface isn’t too bad, and I do like the ability to keep separate journals in the same interface, plus locally-organized stuff: one of my big complaints for my current writing software is that it’s difficult to manage multiple projects.

Tagging seems to be more difficult compared to the web form, which autocompletes and shows me a list of tags I’ve already used.

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