By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It's a good thing the Gundersons always keep a bottle of champagne chilling in their home fridge. Tonight calls for a celebration.
"We're ecstatic," says Jim, before stepping out the back door of their Denver bungalow and popping the bottle's cork into the night. At the lab today at about 4:30 p.m., with just one day left before the Cafe Sci event, they asked Basil to deliver tea to them — and he did it. Yes, they had to place the teapot on his tray after he popped into the lab's kitchen to get it, and they had to pour it themselves once he presented it to them, but that's just because he doesn't have arms yet. The point is, the bugs are gone. He works.
Now all they have to do is replace the tea with a nice frothy beer, and the sky's the limit. First the Wynkoop, then the world. Yes, many challenges lie ahead, like replacing Basil's sonars with much more complicated video cameras, making sure he doesn't get overwhelmed by all the different objects he'll have to eventually identify and figuring out the mind-bending dilemma of teaching a robot to understand informal English. But they're cautiously optimistic. "Everyone wants to leave a legacy," says Louise; maybe this will be theirs. "If we're really lucky, Basil will be as influential as an Apple," she adds as they sit by the fireplace, sipping bubbly.
So let's say the Gundersons do deliver the handy-dandy robot everyone's always wanted. Is that necessarily a good thing? For starters, the specter of people using such machines for bad purposes — programming suicide-bomber Basils, for example — gives Louise heartburn, to put it mildly. And what about the helpful bots Basil could spawn, the ones that learn to complete any task, large or small: Will they enrich people's lives or just make everyone super lazy? The television remote control led to the couch potato, and the Internet gave rise to the web addict. Will a real live Rosie the Robot Maid turn everyone into the blubbery do-nothings depicted in the movie WALL-E?
The Gundersons have thought long and hard about these questions, and they're not ones to take the social ramifications of new technologies lightly. In their own home, they're only willing to embrace new gizmos if they're sure the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. By the time they were ready to purchase a VCR, for example, the technology had given way to DVD players. And other than an in-home version of their Personal DJ software, all of their robots are reserved for the lab.
But the Gundersons are optimistic that one day soon, they and many others will welcome Basil's ilk into their homes, and it won't be the end of productive civilization. Sure, "some people are going to turn into lumps," but they'll be outnumbered by all the people who really need robotic helpers, Louise says, folks like the Gundersons' ninety-year-old acquaintance who, when she learned about the couple's preliminary work on Basil, remarked, "Why didn't you start working on this twenty years ago? I need this now."
Best of all, say the Gundersons, this brave new roboticized world will let folks focus on the finer things in life. In their own case, maybe they'll get back into chasing tornados, a hobby they pursued for five years not just for the thrill of it, but for the near-impossible mathematical challenge of predicting where the twisters were going to hit. Or maybe they'll hit something else on their to-do list, like visiting a live volcano.
And if their grand plan fails? "We'll have robots panhandle for us on street corners," says Jim. "They'll have signs that say 'Will work for voltage.'"
Basil's coming-out party at the Wynkoop bolsters that old cardinal rule in robotics: Live demos don't go as planned.
Things start off promisingly. Halfway through the presentation, Jim says to Louise, "Let's ask him for some beer and see what happens." She types on Basil's wireless keyboard, and he dutifully asks how many beers and what type. Then, after remembering to request some money, he trundles off toward the bar. Unfortunately, still twenty feet away, he slows down. Then slows some more. Finally, he stops completely.
Another glitch? Not this time.
It turns out the Gundersons left Basil on too long, and he's running out of juice. Soon, his sonars start flickering, as does the computer screen on his backside. "This," Jim announces matter-of-factly, "is Basil starving to death."
"Awwww," exclaims the audience as Louise hits the "off" switch — but no one seems too put out. After all, the Gundersons' account of their work has enough whiz-bang moments even without a beer-slinging robot. Jim, his days on a magic stage shining through, has the crowd from the get-go when he inquires, "How many of you have asked, 'Where's my robot?'" — and nearly every hand shoots up. Later, the awe in the room is almost palpable when he says, to help explain reification, "We don't live in the real world. We are all living in a fantasy world. You are living in a model of the real world."