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Can cloud computing make robots smarter?

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Cloud computing could give robots the ability to process more data, analyze situations and form groups while preserving battery life, according to Google project managers.

Cloud computing could give robots the ability to process more data, analyze situations and form groups while preserving battery life, according to Google project managers.

At Google’s I/O conference this week. Google launched rosjava, a ROS (robot OS) framework in Java that is Android compatible. The move coupled with Google’s Android Open Accessory API, which aims to connect a bevy of devices—phones, bikes, cameras, clocks and other household items highlights how it is positioning the Android operating system as a robotics tool.

At various stations, Google I/O highlighted robotics work with the likes of companies such as iRobot, Willow Garage and toymaker Hasbro. iRobot had robots that used tablets as heads and control units—think R2D2 with a crew cut. Willow Garage and Google demonstrated how an Android tablet could be the eyes and ears of the PR2 (right). The PR2 subscribed to the tablet’s orientation and the tablet subscribed to the PR2’s camera images (the eyes).

In a talk, Google project manager Ryan Hickman argued that mobile connectivity and cloud computing could give robots new capabilities with less battery power and memory. By offloading applications like mapping and sensor number crunching to the cloud, robots could become more useful and inexpensive. Mapping, voice and text services and optical character recognition are all cloud-enhancements that can be brought to robots.

I asked Hickman about latency. What would these robots do under clunky 3G connections and areas where there wasn’t access. Hickman’s reply is that the robot’s memory could retain necessary data so it wouldn’t suddenly go limp without a connection.

For instance, NASA’s Ames Research Center is working with Google on the Android-cloud-robot connection with rovers in the desert. The problem is that there is no mobile connectivity in the desert. One possible solution would be to store information on the rover and then have a drone fly over and beam the data up. This drone would be Android powered of course.

Those use cases—along with these cute little Hasbro robots that learn as a group via the cloud—raised at least a dozen “birth of Skynet” quips at the I/O robotics talk. If I heard a dozen Skynet quips just in ear shot it’s safe to say there were thousand more in the field.

Add it up and you have open source ROS, Android and Linux-based robotic systems all looking at a connection to the cloud. Microsoft also has an interesting robot effort via its free Robotics Developer Studio.

A few observations:

  • Hasbro’s Phondox collaboration with Google had hit toy written all over it. Unfortunately these robots, which could recognize your face, get angry when poked and smile, are only a proof of concept.

  • Helper robots are coming along nicely as is mobile manipulation. The GM-NASA collaboration on R2 represents some serious robot advances. Honda is also a leader on the helper robot front.
  • Worries about cloud-robot latency are real today, but will be resolved as technology advances. For the foreseeable future, the cloud will be a complement to robot storage and computing power.
  • Prices need to come down, but off the shelf hardware, open source software and appealing to developers can bring down prices.

Here’s a video of the I/O robotics talk:

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure