Long time readers of Thinking will remember that I have proclaimed that the next 25 years will be for robots what the last 25 years have been for the personal computer. The personal computer brought computational power to the desktop island. Networking and the internet connected and multiplied computational power and added communication and social connection. Robots will add mobility and physical interface to the combination of computation, communication and social connection.
Witness this dynamic from a recent Wired News story:
Lying in his hospital room, on a mattress designed to protect his fragile skin, 13-year-old Achim Nurse poked his bandaged fingers at an orange button on what looked like a souped-up video game console.
Half a second later, in a social studies class discussing the Erie Canal, a 5-foot-tall steel-blue robot raised its hand.
"You have a question, Achim?" said the teacher.
Achim is using a pair of robots -- one, called Mr. Spike, at his bedside, and its mate, Mrs. Candy, in the classroom -- to keep up with his schoolwork and his friends for the months he will be bedridden at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, just north of New York City.
The robot in the classroom, which displays a live picture of Achim, provides what its inventors call "telepresence": It gives the boy an actual presence in the classroom, recognized by teachers and classmates. It can move from class to class on its four-wheel base and even stop at the lockers for a between-periods chat.
This is more than just a video conference call. The students classmates come to see the robot as the student.
Summa said one student used a robot so fully that it joined the boy's classmates to sing a song at a school show. He said a child in the audience asked, "What's that thing up on stage?" to which a friend of the student replied, "That's no thing. That's Jimmy."
It's the control and the social interaction that separates this from a traditional distance learning set-up. The students control the camera so if they want to look out the window or talk to a classmate they can do it.
Amazed at how quickly your kids pick up on new technology? Can your five year old program your cell phone? Are your kids amazed that you used to physically go to a store to buy music? Wait until they get there hands on a robot.