Basil the robot returns, and he's better than ever

It was a big year for Basil in 2008, the year the beer-bringing robot made his big debut via a Joel Warner-penned feature in Westword and his first appearance with inventors/parents Jim and Louise Gunderson, which he made at Cafe Sci Denver, an open forum devoted to chatting about science. A few years later, Basil is coming back to Cafe Sci, and he's a little older and a whole lot smarter -- so smart, in fact, that that's the subject of the talk: artificial intelligence. It's not I, Robot -- yet -- but at least now he can get through the door on his own.

"He was probably not ready for prime time when we did that first appearance," admits Jim Gunderson, who's started Basil's parent company, Gamma Two Robotics, back in 2003. "The improvements are astounding.

"I think the biggest thing is, we've all seen the huge impact of industrial robotics -- welding robots and so forth," Gunderson continues. "The problem is, in order to use those, you need to totally control their environment. In a home environment, in the warehouse or office environment, things are so chaotic that the robots need to be a lot smarter in order to function. What we've done is we've designed a model with enough intelligence to be able to figure out, if there's an obstacle, a rough idea of what that obstacle is. It knows if there's a person in the way it can ask the person to move; if it's a chair in the way, there's no amount of asking that's going to make that chair move. So basically, the robot is able to build a model of its world."

Since his first outing, Basil has gotten so much better at that model building that the question is no longer how can we make him do this, but what can we use it for. As far as that goes, Gamma Two is looking at a couple of main options: One is security -- robots hooked into a security system's mainframe to patrol around and use sensors to record and report anything out-of-the-ordinary. Another is home care, where the robot would act as a companion to a senior citizen, perhaps keeping that person on a medication schedule, or sending a text to a caregiver if help is needed.

"My wife broke her ankle about a year ago and was laid up," relates Gunderson, "and at that point, we were not yet at the point where we could take the robot home to use as an assistant for her; we live in a narrow bungalow with all sorts of twists and turns, and he just wouldn't have been able to do it." Today, he more or less could -- like, pretty much literally today. "Yeah, today was a breakthrough," Gunderson says. "The robot went into the bathroom and came out again."

With Basil overcoming obstacles left and right, the big obstacle now is getting him out or R&D and into production: Gamma Two is currently looking for a manufacturer -- meaning it won't be long before there might just be a Basil waiting on you.

In the meantime, you can join the Gundersons (and Basil) for Cafe Sci tonight at Brooklyn's from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The talk is free. If you can't make it to that, though, feel free to take time out of your Santa Fe ArtWalk on Friday to visit the Gamma Two Studios at 209 Kalamath, unit 13, where the Gundersons will be hanging out, chatting and doing a Basil demo or two throughout the evening.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte