SAN FRANCISCO — Tucked into the cluster of business parks surrounding Stanford University, a team of young engineers is assembling a fleet of robots that can fold laundry, bake cookies, flip pancakes and deliver cold beer.
For that matter, the PR2s, as they’re known, can do just about any ta
sk you’d expect of the average butler, so long as somebody cares to write up the software. And that willingness to share in development is part of the mission of Willow Garage, a 5-year-old Menlo Park research lab.
Instead of building single-purpose robots for the military or factories, Willow Garage is creating open systems that other researchers can tweak or build upon to meet their particular needs.
The company gives away its Robot Operating System (ROS) software — and millions of dollars worth of the PR2s themselves — to accelerate advances in the field. The hope is that creating building blocks and common technical standards will allow researchers to focus on creating and perfecting applications, rather than wasting time reconstructing the underlying technology.
“The mission of Willow Garage is to create a new industry in personal robotics,” said Steve Cousins, chief executive. “We’ve been working on building a platform that allows the technological problems of personal robots to get solved.”
In adopting this approach, Willow Garage is doing as much or more than any organization to push the robotics field forward, experts say. The company is helping to set the stage for digital assistants to roll into our daily lives, and very possibly to become the defining technology trend of the near future.
“There’s something in the air,” said Andrew Ng, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “We’re on the brink where a lot of commercial robotics projects are possible and many are building on ROS.”
In May 2010, the angel investor-backed company (the backers and amounts have not been disclosed) gave away 11 PR2s to research institutions and universities worldwide, including Stanford, UC Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The two-year program was designed to foster and share breakthroughs in the field. It’s what produced those cookies and pancakes, among other things.
Falling prices, improved technology and open systems like ROS are propelling the field toward a tipping point. Upright, artificial intelligence-equipped robots, that indelible image from science fiction, could soon become fixtures in our workplaces, retail establishments and eventually even our homes.
To be sure, robots will remain very expensive — and out of reach to most — for some time to come. But the long history of the technology industry also shows that common standards drastically lower prices by allowing economies of scale to kick in.
The standard PR2, a squat white robot that roughly resembles Pixar’s WALL-E, costs $400,000 (though contributors to open-source software can score a 30 percent discount). Earlier this month, Willow Garage unveiled the PR2 SE, a one-armed version that lops more than $100,000 off the price, by subtracting one of the most expensive parts. Willow Garage has also developed two smaller and cheaper robots, known as TurtleBot and Texai.
The robots are hand-assembled a few at a time in the back room at Willow Garage, which leaves ample opportunity for automation and other forces to tamp down costs further.
Over time, Cousins believes the price will drop from the equivalent of a house to that of a car, and someday that of an appliance. Each rung opens up the robotic revolution to a wider pool of potential customers.
Businesses will probably be the early adopters of the next generation of robots, bringing them into more regular human contact in stores, restaurants and medical offices.
Early home use will likely be seen among wealthy people who can afford the novelty, or infirm and disabled individuals who will justify the price because of the difference a robot can make in their lives, Cousins said.
There is great potential for robots to restore a measure of independence in such cases, by acting as a sort of nurse-servant — helping the person get out of bed, make meals or complete everyday chores.