Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I want more Life!

Computers have obviously been a fantastic tool in improving productivity. We can make financial calculations will blazing speed, have access to the world's knowledge with a few key strokes. We live in a wonderful time.

One thing that computers are not good at is helping make people more productive in the physical world. There are many productivity 'leaks' everyday. These productivity leaks are numerous and what they leak away is more precious than gold or even Apple stock.  Here are a few:

An incomplete list of Time Leaks in human life in no particular order of importance. 

  1. Household chores
    1. Doing the dishes
    2. Vacuuming
    3. Organizing the home
    4. Cleaning vertical and horizontal surfaces
    5. Taking out the trash
    6. Weeding the garden
    7. Changing bed sheets
    8. Doing laundry
    9. Home maintenance (painting, minor plumbing repair)
    10. Re-arranging furniture (especially heavy furniture).
    11. Cooking wholesome food 
      1. Kitchen prep work: cutting veggies and fruit, washing meet etc
      2. Actually cooking to a recipe 
  2. Factory world
    1. Transport of material for production
    2. Disposal of waste
    3. Repetitive tasks with non-uniform parts
    4. Repetitive tasks requiring a high degree of dexterity
    5. Moving heavy items into place
    6. Joining items
    7. Cleaning, lapping and finishing parts
    8. Packing variable sized items to minimize shipping charges. 
  3. Office world
    1. Physically moving books and binders
    2. Making coffee and cookies of guests
    3. Picking up the bosses dry cleaning (see 4 below)
  4. Store world
    1. Stocking shelves
    2. Keeping track of inventory and losses
    3. Telling customers buying clothes:  "you look fabulous!" 
    4. Assisting customers in finding the right "thingy" 
    5. Unloading trucks
    6. Pricing merchandise. 
    7. Re-ordering the store (putting misplaced items back in their rightful places). 
    8. Demonstrating how things work (toys, electronics, etc.) 
  5. Tasks involving driving
    1. Picking up and dropping off kids from school
    2. Going shopping 
    3. Driving to work in busy traffic
    4. Picking laundry and dry cleaning 
  6. On a personal level
    1. bathing an infirmed relative
    2. Assisting someones mobility

Obviously this is a partial list.  But, much of what is on this... no... all of what is on this list can be addressed robotically. However, sadly, roboticist do not follow a monolithic vision.  Roboticists are usually firmly in one of two camps on how to go about this. 

Camp 1: Many useful, special purpose robots 

Camp 1 is inhabited by sensible people who know how hard it is to build a "universal robot." These people have realized how difficult it is to make a robot do the simplest task,  just picking up a dish, and washing it is really difficult.  Well, getting a robot to see the dish is the first problem. Getting it to angle a gripper to at a proper grasp point is the next problem. Regrasping the dish, it the final problem... before we get started with the actual task. 

Besides, robots that are capable would be really, really expensive and out of reach, price wise, for most people. The most expensive appliances run about $1000-$2000 tops for the average middle class appliance. How would we get someone to spend 10x or perhaps 1000x that much money on an "appliance"? It's absurd. 

Camp 2: One Universal Robot

Camp 2 is inhabited by people who hope to build a universal robot that can do all of the above and more. Each task might be an "app." (App is not an analogy I embrace because apps run independently of each other with no coordination and are launched by the user, not autonomously).

This camp argues that a universal robot will be like a universal computer, i.e. like your desk top or lap top it can run any code. With a proper Operating System, this robot will be able to perform any task possible.


In the short term, camp 1 guys will win out. Indeed, they are already winning out. iRobot has a much greater sales volume in the appliance world than, say Aldebaran. And the iRobot products actually do useful things. 

But here is what I am afraid of. I am afraid that to address all of the chores above, we will need perhaps dozens of these single purpose robots.  That will lead to an ever escalating problem of maintenance of said robots... changing batteries, interacting with them, each with a unique user interface.  Then, the constant stream of upgrading appliances. The effort of dozens of companies designing robots with unique or overlapping niches. It will become a mess.  Don't get me going about how I am going to keep 30 items charged every day!

Camp 2  is an elegant solution. What!? No realist would claim that, surely. But hear me out.

One robot that does it all. That gives the consumer one point of interaction. One item to get fixed if it breaks. One model to upgrade. One user manual to read.  Further, the device can expand beyond a set of well defined niche tasks and can evolve.

Programmers will work on one robot. They will share their code synergistically.  Instead of fractured disconnected efforts, there will be one code base that interacts seamlessly.

What about the cost? 

Well, the question is not really about cost, is it? How much do you spend on your mortgage? On your car payment? Throw in utilities, insurance, and maintenance and those two bills account for about 1/2 of many people's take home pay. 

While I am not here to give financial advice, it is clear that people will pay a significant amount of their income to buy things  they need.

But what a universal robot can offer is a unique kind of value. A robot offers you Time. The most precious thing you have. More value that all the riches, is an extra day of life.  You have N days left in your life. In some actuary manual or written in some scroll in someone's religion, there is a day. And that is the day you will die. 

The question, then, is, how much is it worth to you to have say 20%-30% maybe even more life?  How much would it be worth to you to spend  that time with your friends and family? Traveling? Meeting new people?  Doing the things that you enjoy doing? Writing that novel that you have always wanted? How much is that worth to you each month? What would an extra 1000 hours a year be worth to you? 

If that value proposition can be refined and made real, I predict that people will pay a lot for a robot. A huge portion of their take home pay.  They will get that robot by any means possible be it by saving, by financing,  or by leasing.

Nearly everyone will realize at some point that their days are numbered. That is the day that a robot that can do "all of the above" can help out and come to the rescue and give you back more of the only thing there isn't too much of: Time.

Perhaps later I will write about how to methodically spec out the above Universal Robot, coordinate a group of really cleaver people, and get it done.