Robots: Re-Evolving Mind


Mass Utility Robots this Decade,
Full Automation this Century

Hans Moravec

Carnegie Mellon University
Robotics Institute


Freely-roaming robots that fetch, clean, guard and do other chores have been an elusive fantasy for decades. Industrial mobile robots today have a very limited market because they work only on expensively prearranged routes. Hundredfold increases in onboard computer power in the 1990s finally allowed research robots to map their own routes, and prowl research building hallways and offices daylong. Industrial applications require trouble-free months, which can probably be achieved by replacing the 2D maps in the present research machines with hundredfold-richer 3D versions - the author's main work. The likely first product within three years will be a basketball-sized camera-studded "navigation head" to be retrofitted to existing industrial transport and cleaning machines, that lets them operate autonomously in new locations simply designated. The follow-on business plan anticipates a growing industrial market to support the development of mass-market products, starting with small specialized automatic home vacuum cleaners around 2005, followed by more capable home utility robots able to manipulate objects as well as travel, and, sometime after 2010, a first generation of broadly-capable "universal robots" able to run application programs for many simple chores. These machines will have mental power and inflexible behavior analogous to small reptiles. Following decades will see an evolution through mammallike learning, primatelike imagination and humanlike abstraction. By mid-century no human task, physical or intellectual, should be beyond effective automation.


I see a strong parallel between the evolution of robot intelligence and the biological intelligence that preceded it. The largest nervous systems doubled in size about every fifteen million years since the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago. Robot controllers double in complexity (processing power) every year or two. They are now barely at the lower range of vertebrate complexity, but should catch up with us within a half century. Here are some historical and projected robotic high points, and approximate biological analogs.

Hans P. Moravec Biography

Hans Moravec is a pioneer in mobile robot research. After building many hobby and science-fair robots as a child, his doctoral work in the 1970s let the Stanford Cart, a card-table-sized, TV-equipped robot remote controlled by a large computer, map and negotiate obstacle courses at a ten-meter-per-hour crawl. He was a founder of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in 1980, where he is now a Principal Research Scientist. There has been developing more capable perception techniques for robots that should allow freely-navigating utility robots to appear widely this decade, paced by increases in computing power. He is author of "Mind Children" (1988) and "Robot" (1999), books that examine the implications of evolving robot intelligence.