Many years ago, when I was a lot younger, I saw Star Wars for the first time. Like a lot of people, I was entranced by the adorable robots. I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if we actually had robots like that in our own lives?”
Being a practical young man, I set about thinking what might be a good way to do this. It occurred to me that the best way might be to cheat — to create the theatrical experience of a robot, without trying to really make the robot as smart as a human. I called my concept “House with robot”.
I’ve come to realize that all through my career I’ve embraced this sort of cheating as a general theme — from my work on procedural textures to interactive animated characters to robot swarms to zooming interfaces: The trick is to create the illusion that something impossible is going on, while pulling strings behind the scenes to support that illusion.
The basic idea of “house with robot” was that your house itself would actually contain the real smarts — via computers responding to sensors embedded in the walls and floors, microphones, heat detectors, and cameras that would watch you to figure out what you were doing. Your robot servants, which to you would appear to be really smart, would actually just be puppets, tele-operated by a behind-the-scenes computer array to create the illusion of an embodied intelligence.
The robot would be the face that you see, but the brains and much of the sensing smarts would really be somewhere else in the house.
This might seem weird, but it’s actually what your iPhone already does. Without the “cloud”, your pretty SmartPhone would be little more than a useless hunk of metal, plastic and glass. A distributed server located somewhere else is actually computing all those map routes, looking up facts for you, feeding answers to Siri, and doing most of the cute and amazing things that you associate with the magical electronic object in your hand.
Today I was talking with a friend who is working on writing a book about the future of robots in our lives. I described my idea from long ago, and he said that it still sounds like a good approach, even after all these years.
So if you want to have R2-D2 and C-3PO in your life, maybe you need to build a house, from the ground up, that does all the heavy lifting to make your robot seem intelligent. What you really need is a “house with robot”.