A new U.N. report says that 607,000 automated domestic helps were in use at the end of 2003. It seems that the
most popular robots purchased by consumers perform manual tasks like yardwork or vacuuming the floors as well as
educate or entertain.
Actually, our robots are suitable for any of those applications. There are many commercial applications for our
platform, especially security. Commercial security, homeland security, and home security on a consumer level, including
facial recognition. With service robots, you could program the robot to run errands. We're not producing the robot for
one specific application, we're a producer of mobile robotic platforms. We turn them over to customers and other
companies and they take it from there, adding their own special electronics and software.
Give me a quick backgrounder on White Box Robotics.
Sure. I started the company five years ago. We've been a formal company for about two years. We have six employees. I
have a 1,500-square-foot lab and an office facility at the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center.
Tell me about some of the robots in your exhibit today.
The basic robot is the 912 (pictured above), the silver one that's been running around on the floor. You can see some
wild, over-the-top concepts in our booth, demonstrating that if you get one of these robots, these are very real things
that you can do. Our 912 Apache military concept has the robot sitting in the back of a giant ATV [a Suzuki 500 Vinson
provided by Bike World Motor Sports of Sunnyvale, Calif., pictured below]. I actually gave one of my robots to my
friends at TransEffects, a Hollywood movie prop studio that does concept cars for General Motors and other
manufacturers, and I said, "Guys, here's a 912, this is what I want. I want tank treads, I want military, I want a lot
of weapons." I didn't know what to expect, and this showed up the morning before the show. They did an incredible
Then there's the 912 MP3 robot (pictured at right). It's a multimedia
robot that's a mobile DJ of sorts. You can download MP3s off the Internet, and the robot can roll around at your next
party and play MP3s through its built-in satellite subwoofer system. It's got a DVD movie screen on the back and a
PC-based graphic equalizer. You can burn CDs. It's all off-the-shelf computer parts.
That's coming out in the first quarter of 2005?
Yes. We're in the home stretch after five years of development.
What's it cost?
The bare-bones platform is gonna come in right around $799. For that you get the differential drive system, you get
the IO card that controls the motors and the sensors, you get the full chassis and the body panels. From there, you add
the motherboard of your choice. You can add a laptop hard drive, a CD-ROM drive and CD burner, and cheap Webcams, and
you have a fully functioning robot. We chose to do it that way because the PC and robotics enthusiasts really expressed
the idea that maybe I don't want a 20-gig drive, maybe I want a 120-gig drive, or half a gig of RAM instead of
The DIY platform as an initial platform made a lot of sense because we can get it in the hands of enthusiasts and they
can get it out however they want. It's important to note that we designed the platform to let people cut, drill, paint
— it's a far larger blank canvas than a PC, especially for the mod crowd. It's DIY, do-it-yourself. At all costs, I
want to avoid the word "kit," because it sounds like a toy or model and these are very serious, real robots.
Are there functionalities that all the DIY robots have in common?
On a basic level, you can still do a lot with the robot. Right out of the box, the robot can pretty effectively guard
your house, with object recognition. Telepresence is a big one, too: connect the robot into your wireless network at
home and you can access the robot while you're away. You can check on the house, check on your parents, check on your
child or dog. Did you leave the iron on? Send the robot into the room to find out. It has speech synthesis and speech
recognition as well.
I didn't think we were at a point where facial recognition really worked.
It works reasonably well. I was actually surprised. We use the Evolution Robotics RCC software, the application
program to control the robot, and I took several shots of my face, and the robot caught me from the side and it was
still able to recognize me. In all fairness, it's not perfect, but it's fairly accurate, more than you might
As far as commercial applications, I could see these robots used in a warehouse. A company might be tempted to
replace its security guards, in theory.
Absolutely. They make very inexpensive, almost disposable security guards. A lot of the robots on the market, you're
talking a $40,000 to $60,000 price tag. But with the 912 series, you can build one of these things for a few thousand
dollars. A security robotics company could approach us and purchase our platform to do inexpensive security robots, and
you've got a couple of thousand dollars tied up in one. So what if one of them falls down a flight of stairs or someone
cracks a chair over its head? It's not a major loss on investment.
And companies can recoup their costs fairly fast.
That's exactly it. Robots don't show up drunk, they never call in sick.
Do you have any robots at home?
More than you could ever imagine. They're all through my entire house. All through my office. I always tell people the
story of how all the other kids in kindergarten were making clay ashtrays, I was making clay robots. I've got a
collection from kindergarten on up, so they're in every cupboard and corner of the house.
Functioning ones, too?
Yes. I have one of our robots guarding the house. I use the robot vacuum on a routine basis in my house and in the
lab. Plus, there are the toys I always play with, from a voice-activated R2D2 to robots from "Lost in Space."
Do you see robots replacing home PCs for some tasks?
Pretty effectively. Our robot will do anything your home computer will do: Internet access, word processing, PC
gaming, plus it's a real robot besides. I think the PC has already been replaced.
In what sense?
Why would you buy a PC when you could have one of these robots that would do all the functions of a PC? I can check my
email, I can do all those office applications. But I can also program it to wake me up in the morning. I can program it
to guard my house. In that sense, the PC's already been replaced.
Have you licensed your technology to anyone?
We've had considerable interest, but because we're releasing our first product in the first quarter of 2005, we're in
the middle of that. A number of companies have talked with us about doing an OEM.
This seems like a pretty big trade show for such a young industry. This is the largest one. There
have been smaller ones around the country. The shows are bigger in Japan, but there has never been a trade show for
robotics on this scale in the United States. It shows the interest is there.
Where do you see the field heading five years down the road?
I think within the next five years you're going to see just an explosion of robotic products entering the marketplace.
In the early to mid-1980s, there was a robotics revolution, but the technology just wasn't there yet. The manufacturers
made promises they couldn't keep, and the whole market did a crash and burn. I think we're at a point where there are
real technologies we've been working on for the past 20 years, and there are real viable technologies going into these
robotics. And so I think our second time around — our second revolution — will have real staying power.
Did you see "I, Robot"?
No, I didn't see it, and I'll tell you why. Robots really have gotten a bad rap from Hollywood, and it just reinforces
the fears people have from the 1950s movies, where the robot breaks in and kills a whole crowd of people. That remains
an underlying fear: that robots are going to harm us or take over. So that was my way to rebel, by not seeing the
So robots are our friends.
They're absolutely our friends. That's how I see it.
J.D. Lasica is the author of the upcoming book
Darknet: Remixing the Future of Entertainment.