Ask Dr. Universe: When Can I Own a Robot?

When the family Roomba isn't enough

Dr. Universe and a new friend | Photo credit: Dr. Universe

"When can I own a robot?" — Jac, 8, Taos, New Mexico

Dear Jack,

There are all kinds of robots in our world. In fact, you may already have one in your house.

That’s what I found from my friend, Professor Matthew E. Taylor. We met up at Washington State University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, where engineers are exploring how robots learn and work.

“One thing a lot of people don’t realize is there’s not really a good definition for what a robot is,” Taylor said. “It’s really just something that senses the world around it and then acts on it.”

Think about an automatic garage door, for example. It senses when you push a button and if something is in the way. Then, it moves up and down, Taylor explains.

I’d actually had an idea for a robot of my own: a sidekick to help me find answers to baffling questions from humans. It would also deliver tuna fish sandwiches.

As Taylor and I tinkered with microchips, wires and computers, he explained what it takes to build a robot.

“There’s the mechanical engineering, figuring out how the robot will actually move,” he said. “There is electrical engineering, figuring out what sensors to use and how that’s all going to be wired together. There is also computer science. You have to program the robot to do what you want it to.”

You could build a robot of your own. You might be able to buy one, too. But it probably won’t be doing your laundry or cleaning up your room any time soon.

Nonetheless, some robots in our world can do some impressive jobs.

“Robots are really good at the three Ds: dirty, dangerous and dull,” Taylor said. At WSU, engineers are building robots that can help with harvest and heavy lifting on farms.

Other robots are also good at assisting humans in their daily lives, he adds. In Japan, some scientists are building robots that look more like humans to help assist elderly people. In the lab here, one group of students is developing a robotic wheelchair to help people get around.

“One of the areas we work in is robot-human interaction, which is a combination of computer science and psychology, figuring out how humans and robots can better work together,” Taylor said.

If you are interested in building robots, Taylor suggests meeting with local clubs in your community, like LEGO First Robotics. You can make new, human friends and enter your robot in competitions.

“Just dive in,” Taylor said. “It’s really fun, but it can be frustrating, just like any new thing. It takes a while to learn, but it is so satisfying when it works.”

My robot is still a work in progress. As we learn more about how robots learn, help us and work, we can make them better. Perhaps one day, I won’t have to make my own tuna sandwiches anymore. Of course, even if my robot can help answer questions, I’ll still be here to answer them, too. After all, it’s my favorite thing to do.


Dr. Universe

Originally published by Ask Dr. Universe

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