International Personal Robot Congress & Exposition
Albuquerque Convention Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
April 13-15, 1984
- be part of the beginning -
A report on the
First International Robotics Congress,
The conference was fascinating for its contradictions. One
question was asked time and time again: "What does it do ?".
The contrary opinion was also voiced that a robot did not
have to be useful - it merely had to be lovable. One
manufacturer reported financial success - others were merely
hopeful of future performance. Perhaps it is significant
that the successful robot has an easily definable task -
that of education.
The opening session reflected the desire of the organisers
to put the IPRC and Albuquerque itself onto the map. The
historic and unique nature of the event was plugged again
and again. Asimov was self-congratulatory as ever, but
highly entertaining for all that. He ranged from his
influence on Joe Engelberger to the naivety of people who
question robot accidents in terms of a contravention of the
"three Laws of Robotics". In his anthropomorphic view of
robots, he made a powerful point that the very nature of
machine intelligence may differ from human intelligence in
a complementary way.
Now it was time to decide between the parallel sessions,
where at first I selected "Hardware Considerations". Jim
Lytle launched into a businesslike attempt to define a
robot, questioning the need for mobility, sensors, a
manipulator and any other accepted attributes. He settled on
"a Machine with human-like capabilities", and came down
against the need to do useful work. However he streesed that
the Hero had a useful purpose, that of education. He than
got down to details of actuators, sensors and the need to
apply intelligence to the interpretation of sensors.
Brent DeWitt beat about the "What does it do" bush,
deducing that the robot-builder's role was parental! More
practically, he addressed the problem of software
transportability, and suggested a layered approach to robot
software with a pyramid hierarchy. (Personally I feel that
the losses in opting for a standard operating system far
outweigh the advantages, except in the exploitation of
easily 'borrowed' routines for standard tasks. Structured
software is another matter - structure is essential.) In
discussion the question of the coordination of a houseful
of specialised robots arose, and was dealt with in a
The record of excellence of the speakers was then broken.
The chairman gave the platform to Jonathan Oakey, who had
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deaf since infancy. Disastrously this seemed to be his first
experience of public speaking, and he read painfully from
excessive notes with long pauses. This brought the section
to a close, and I moved to the session on Business
Douglas Bonham had already started to give an account of
the success of Hero I. He gave an impressive list of its
public appearances and news reports. Although outsold by
other electronic products, Hero I is Heath Company's best
selling educational product. Hero I has outsold robots of
all types throughout the world, and Heath has between 70%
and 90% of the personal robot market. "The easy sales have
been made." He predicted a large market in the domestic
robot business - but suggested that there were much easier
pickings to be made elsewhere. Again he stressed that the
answer to "what does it do" was education.
Joe Bosworth once more stressed the "what does it do"
issue. He described the RB5X's problems as being due to "a
mature distribution scheme for an immature product." With
16 to 20 representatives and 80 to 90 dealers, the sad
conclusion was that the product was not ready for the market.
The industry is a moving target; what will happen when people
with real marketing money enter into competition?
Skip Steveley spoke patriotically about Androbot. Topo is
a computer peripheral, with an optical link which is upset
by lasers at press launches. Bob is self contained, and is
rather over-engineered. He stressed the need for aggressive
marketing, and for qualified people to demonstrate them. He
was well steeped in Nolan's fantasies, looking forward to
robots which would "do a lot more."
At this point I returned to the Hardware session to make
contact with Dan Prendergast. I listened to Tom Carroll and
Richard Prather describing their "home-grown" robots. Many
technical details were interesting, but not important from
an exploitation point of view. I was then able to present
an outline of the "Robot Ping-Pong" contest in the last ten
minutes of the session.
The afternoon was filled with the exhibition. Several
ingenious gadgets were on display, but the dominant robots
were Topo, Bob, RB5X and Hero I - apart from a number of
remotely controlled "show robots". Robot capabilities seemed
to be limited to stilted speech, measurement of distance and
the ability to follow a few feet behlng a human "master".
The nearest to a practical application was a lawn-mower
which could remember its remotely-guided program. Nolan made
dark remarks about not wanting to be responsible for "mowing
Saturday's sessions started with guest presentations
including one by Joe Engelberger. He mentioned the Robot
Industries Association, hoping that the personal roboticists
would become members. He also aligned himself with the "it
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must do something" camp. A memorable description of the task
of assembly by robot: "Rub petroleum jelly on your glasses.
Tie one hand behind your back. Put a mitten on that hand,
and then pick up chopsticks."
Nolan Bushnell then painted the verbal picture expected of
him, saying that "Fun sells." He cast the robot as a pet and
as a companion, and looked forward to robot markets four to
six times the computer market. "Less than 10% of the
population wrote a letter last year." "Many people own a
dog, and wish that it could speak English." "Many lonely and
perhaps senile people need to be reminded to take their
medicine." Perhaps his charisma will be sufficient to
influence the market, at least in the national home of Walt
Nolan's opinions were reflected throughout the "Futures"
session. In particular, Fred d'Ignazio presented a cloyingly
sentimental picture of his children dressing up Topo, of
them being woken by Topo in the morning and giving the robot
Nelson Winkless went entertainingly into more practical
detail. He suggested a robot which now and then would put a
seal-like flipper around its owner's waist. After a display
of seeming affection, it might telephone his doctor to warn
of high blood-pressure or such. "What about the
responsibility of paying for false alarm calls ?"
Meeting of the BPEMG
Early on Saturday afternoon the British contingent met to
discuss the formation of the British Personal Robot
Manufacturers' Group. Present were John Billingsley, Robin
Bradbeer, David Buckley, Graham Dobney, Geoff Henney, Peter
Matthews, and Richard Moyle. Joe Bosworth looked in for part
of the meeting. Nine prime objectives were identified:
1. To lobby Government.
2. To determine legal liability.
3. To influence education.
4. To maintain standards of after-sales service.
5. To establish standards, in the general sense.
6. To be a channel through which members could affiliate to
the international body.
7. To attract funds for R & D.
8. To help members to get government assistance to attend
9. To fund national representation at trade meetings abroad,
such as next year's fair in Tsukuba.
Some discussion followed on qualification for membership
-should it be limited to manufacturers, should wholesalers
be included, should a lay membership receive the newsletter?
It is possible that the criterion for membership will be
willingness to pay the fees!
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Meeting of the NPRA
At 6.30 a meeting was called to discuss the National
Personal Robot Association - the American version of the
Joe Bosworth led discussion via the difference between a
Trade Association and a Professional Association, pointing
out the need to form some association to take on the
organisation of next year's show - few of this year's
organisers were prepared to volunteer again.
He described the Paris meeting briefly, and then went
on to outline some objectives:
1. To deal with anticipated Government regulations.
2. To relate to the housing industry.
3. To relate to the appliance industry and establish
4. To impress financial institutions.
5. To consider ethics, warranties to customers.
6. To focus publicity, and to communicate with amateur
The 'selling' job then started on convincing those present
that the association should come under the wing of the Robot
Industries Association. It was pointed out that 300
companies were members, that RIA hired professional
congressional lobbyists and that RIA had a professional show
management group. The deficit of the present conference of
$28,000 was made light of, but clearly made an impression on
those present when it was suggested that next year's
organisers might have to guarantee any losses. Joe
Engelberger joined in the rhetoric, and a unanimous vote was
taken that the committee should sound out the possibilities
of RIA affiliation.
It was important to attend the conference, as much to
survey the level of American activity as to attend the
technical sessions. I found the lack of technical
sophistication surprising. Many of the 'star' features of the
robots had been anticipated by Micromice two years ago, such
as the ability to judge and speak of distance, and to navigate
by sonar. (A large question-mark still hangs over the products
likely to be launched from Japan.)
The formation of the British group will reinforce support
for the International Personal Robot Association, but the
affiliation of the American group to an organisation as large
as the RIA may perhaps be unsettling.
John Billingsley, 1984.
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Robotics at home, A forum sponsored by NATA Industries,
2nd and 3rd March 1984, Hotel Le Bristol, Paris.