Dinner and a Robot: My Night Out With a PR2

Courtesy Willow Garage

On Wednesday night I had the pleasure of dining at the exclusive Willow Garage in Menlo Park, Calif. Appetizers included lobster and corn croquettes, local cheeses paired with figs, and a sort of melon gazpacho that, well, put the “-oup” back into cold soup. As the evening progressed, I devoured some heirloom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil pressed only a few miles away and a grand rack of elk sitting on top of summer vegetables. Chef Jef Piazzon stopped by with wines paired with each course.

Willow Garage is particularly exclusive because it’s not a restaurant at all but a 60-person robotics company. Still, Chef Piazzon—who earned his chops cooking at Google and the much ballyhooed Manresa (an actual fine-dining restaurant open to the public)—does whip up breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the troops. The typical meal may not include leprechaun—massaged elk—but it’s still quite something, from what I’m told. The food and the setting, an office building with a lazy backyard and plush outdoor seating, are rather spectacular for a company that, let’s face it, does not sell an awful lot of anything.

Scott Hassan, one of the main brains behind Google, founded Willow Garage in 2006 as a well-funded robotics research shop. Over the past six years, the company has earned some measure of fame in the robotics community for creating what amounts to an open-source operating system for robots and for building a video-conferencing robot that can cruise through offices, hospitals, and the like. Willow Garage also makes something called the PR2, which is a $400,000 robot that looks a heck of a lot like Rosie from The Jetsons, only without the apron or paper hat.

Here’s the deal with the products. Willow Garage spun out the video-conferencing technology into a separate company called Suitable Technologies, which Hassan now runs alongside a handful of employees taken from Willow Garage. Its products will appear in the “early fall 2012,” according to the company’s website, which also notes that “our private chef provides lunch daily from local, fresh ingredients.”

As for the software, well, it’s called ROS, or robot operating system, and it’s given away in the hope that other robotics folks will use it and make their own additions and return those additions to Willow Garage. I’m told that “dozens of robots” now run on ROS and that this is impressive, although I have to confess to having no idea whether that’s a lot of robots or not. The grand vision behind ROS is that it turns into the equivalent of Windows for robotics: a standard platform on which millions of robots run. That places Willow Garage at the center of the robotics universe.

For the moment, the PR2 is one of the main vehicles for getting ROS into roboticists’ hands. It’s sold to researchers as a general purpose robot tuned for experimentation. The machine has a head, two arms, and a base with wheels. It can see things and pick them up and move them and do all of this without harming anyone due to some of the engineering restraints around its moving parts.

Before the dinner, some of the engineers at Willow Garage demonstrated what a PR2 can accomplish in the home—tasks such as placing dirty dishes in the sink and then setting the table with clean dishes. Research is also under way to see if the robot can help people who are paralyzed or suffering from other debilitating conditions. One gentleman, for example, relies on a PR2 to pick up his son’s dirty clothes and to help the gentleman shave.

Each PR2 is handmade at the Willow Garage offices. The company can produce about four robots per month and relies on technicians, often former mechanics, to assemble them. A new robot will appear at an unspecified time at a much lower cost, according to Steve Cousins, the chief executive of Willow Garage. About 35 of the PR2s are out in the wild, including ones at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania. One at UC Berkeley folds laundry and can pair socks.

Cousins envisions a coming era in which robots are not just letting humans “be there,” in the sense of a video conferencing robot, but also “act there,” in the sense of humans accomplishing actual tasks remotely. He provides a hypothetical example of his mother suffering an illness. “If my mom had a robot in her home that I could inhabit, maybe I would visit her once a day,” Cousins says. “I can make her a cup of tea and play a game and have a chat.” People might be willing to rent such a robot for thousands of dollars over the course of the few months needed to get over the illness.

If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for a robot explosion for years and years, only to be disappointed. Cousins suggests there’s more reason for optimism now. He points to Microsoft’s Kinect gesture sensor as a big breakthrough. For $150, people can now buy eyes for their robots, instead of paying $5,000 or more, as they had in recent years. “Kinect is a big deal,” he says. “It opens this to so many more people.” (This is not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. Won’t it be something if Microsoft ends up as some kind of robotics powerhouse via an add-on for its Xbox gaming console?)

Cousins also points to computing power getting good enough now to process very complex algorithms on the fly, giving robots the ability to act instantly and make more sophisticated decisions. Meanwhile, facial recognition and object recognition have gotten really good, too.

On the whole, Willow Garage is a researchers’ paradise. This is no surprise given its near limitless financial backing and Cousins’ history as a researcher at Xerox PARC and IBM’s Almaden Research Center. I’m not sure if locally raised chard provides the fuel these researchers need to unleash a new era of robotics upon us, but I guess we’ll find out.

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