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BLOG: Robots will soon deliver pizza

Mike Elgan | June 4, 2012
Google, as well as car companies and universities are making incredible advances in the technology for self-driving cars, and that technology will enable the robot revolution.

A robot gets a driver's license

The state of Nevada legalized self-driving cars last summer, a law that went into effect in March. Just this month, the state granted the world's first driver's license to a driverless car -- one of Google's Priuses.

The legalization of robot cars isn't taking place just in Nevada. The California State Senate approved a bill last week that would legalize self-driving cars in the state. The notoriously fractious body approved the measure unanimously. The bill will be heard next by the state Assembly.

Arizona, Hawaii and Oklahoma are also considering the legalization of self-driving cars.

Within a year or two, regular cars will start coming on the market with an "auto-pilot" feature; it will work like cruise control, but take total control of the vehicle. The "driver" will be able to sit there and read a magazine on the freeway. At first, a human driver will be required by law to sit in the driver's seat, even while the car is driving itself.

Eventually, it will be so clear to everyone that the computer is safer without the human driver, that truly driverless cars will be legalized.

Which brings us to the robot revolution

So here's the thing about self-driving cars. The "car" part is optional.

A self-driving car is simply a robot with sensors for perceiving location, orientation, roads, traffic lights, obstacles, and other factors and a computer brain to manage all that sensor information and make decisions about how and where to move the vehicle. The "body" of that robot happens to be a passenger car. But that same technology could be easily built into a Segway-like robot, or a wagon or a cart or a humanoid robot.

The auto-balancing Segway form factor will be advantageous because it takes about the same space as a walking human. That would enable these robots to use not only roads, but bike lanes and sidewalks. They could even enter buildings and roll down hallways.

Once robots have the technology and the legal rights to use public roads as humans do, they'll be able to roam those streets at will, doing our bidding.

This is especially interesting when you consider how it will intersect with another development: the rise of intelligent agents or assistants. Software like Apple's Siri or the many similar offerings available on Android phones combine voice recognition with artificial intelligence to figure out what you say. Then this capability will be applied to something called "agency" -- the ability to take action on your requests.

The most basic kind of agency involves only bits on the Internet, actions like making restaurant reservations. The virtual assistant interacts between the human user and a databased-oriented computer service. You tell your phone: "Make me a reservation at a good Italian place tonight for around 7," and software figures out the details and make it happen.


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