The Gundersons get us ready for Basil, the robot of our dreams

When people ask Jim and Louise Gunderson if they have kids, they reply, "No, we have robots." But right now, Louise feels like any other harried mother carrying a kilo of toys and bottles and diapers wherever she goes. Today is the first big day out for her little one, and she's brought along everything Basil the robot may need. That includes a laptop in case they have to mess with his code, an impressively large wrench and a couple of screwdrivers if they have to tinker with his hardware, an extension cord for when he gets hungry, and super glue — lots and lots of super glue.

The adhesive's already proven vital: A little while ago, one of Basil's wheels fell off and they had to glue the sucker back on. "I sympathize with people with kids," says Louise. "We're going to have to make custom carriers for all this gear."

They can't bother with that now, though. They're in the back meeting room of the Wynkoop Brewing Company downtown, and in just over an hour they'll be surrounded by the legion of science and technology buffs that get together here ten times a year for Cafe Scientifique, a wildly popular beer- and curiosity-fueled colloquium on far-ranging science topics. The Gundersons will have the spotlight, detailing their work at Gamma Two Inc., the tiny Denver-based robotics research and design company they started in 2003.

Basil’s debut at the Wynkoop.
Basil’s debut at the Wynkoop.
Ken Byles and Bill Llewellin watch the Gundersons in their lab.
Ken Byles and Bill Llewellin watch the Gundersons in their lab.

They're looking spiffy for the occasion, their long hair — Jim's is orange, and Louise's is brown with a streak of gray — tidily done up in ponytails. But they both know the real star today is Basil, their latest creation, here to strut his stuff.

In truth, Basil (his name rhymes with "dazzle") isn't all that exciting to look at. Standing just about waist-high, he resembles a shiny upside-down salt shaker on wheels. He has no arms, no legs — not even eyes, unless you count the twelve sonar banks flickering up and down his aluminum chest that capture a rough outline of his surroundings. But looks can be deceiving. Under the hood, Basil is hot stuff — maybe even revolutionary. The Gundersons claim to have possibly solved one of the most challenging problems in robotics, and just a few weeks ago, they published an entire book, Robots, Reasoning and Reification, about it.

Most autonomous robots today may be good at a specific, pre-programmed trick or two, like acting like a cute dog or walking up the stairs, but they can't do anything else. The Gundersons promise that they can fix that, that their robot will be able to accept new commands, reason out ways to complete them, and then go out and do them. Want the robot to dust the bookshelves? No problem. Want it to set the table? Easy. Want Basil to fetch a beer? Well, that's exactly what the Gundersons hope he'll do today.

The plan is this: The Gundersons will ask Basil to go to the bar, request a couple of stouts from the bartender, and then, once they're placed on the titanium tray perched on his head, bring them back to his creators. They haven't told him how to do this — there's no set script in his processors that tells him to roll a certain distance southwest, speak a certain command, then come back. He'll have to figure it all out on his own, using a basic knowledge of bars and beers and so on, reasoning skills and an ability to understand certain parts of the world. When his sonars capture the image of a person, for example, he knows it's a person, not just a nameless object to be avoided. And he knows that, in this case, that person wants a beer.

"This is the first time Basil's been out with his brains intact," Louise notes, adding that they've never had him complete complicated tasks in public before. When they brought him out for their recent wedding anniversary party, for example, they turned off his higher-level brain and had him dance around by dumbly bouncing from one lady to the next — the way most guys function on the dance floor.

Today's demo is far more challenging. It will be one frothy beer for Basil, one giant champagne-worthy accomplishment for robotkind.

That is, if all goes as planned — which, right now, it isn't. When the Gundersons power Basil up to check his hardware, his sonars unexpectedly go out. They fix that, but then the robot starts spinning in circles. That bug gets taken care of with some help from the Friends of Basil, a few of the Gundersons' acquaintances who volunteer to help out on the robot — the closest thing that Gamma Two has to other employees. But then a bigger problem arises: When asked to go to the bar and introduce himself to the bartender, Basil speeds off in the opposite direction, charging toward a couple of early birds sitting in the front row. "Now I'm officially nervous," says Louise.

"We have plenty of time — it's not like people are walking in," Jim replies sarcastically, gesturing to the crowds already filing in.

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