What’s In a Name?

As I was walking back to my car from parking the float I had been driving at the Labor Day parade, I happened across an R2 Unit that had been on the side of the parade route. And I got to talk to its owners/builders. Turns out they were visiting from Mountain States Droid Builders, a fan club that builds robot replicas from the Star Wars universe. They were happy to demonstrate the way they built their ‘droid and invited me to join them at their work parties. We discussed that this R2 unit was technically more of an RC vehicle than a proper robot but that they had plans for adding robot-skills to their device as time and money became available.
This led me to ponder, yet again, how to define the difference between the machines we’ve been talking about. I see there being 5 or 6 kinds of machines at the moment; RCs and Drones, autonomous vehicles, human-assisted, industrial and other kinds of robots, and ‘Droids.

RC vehicles and drones are machines which are piloted by humans who are remote from the machine itself. The humans rely on information from sensors or visual observation of the craft itself. The craft may have components which aid the human in various tasks much like cruise-control and auto-pilot do today.

Autonomous vehicles would be able to control their own actions, using sensors and other inputs to navigate safely from point-to-point. These vehicles may coordinate with external sources such as road- or other vehicle-feedback

Hybrid vehicles (I suppose we need a new word for this since Hybrid already means multiple fuel sources) would be semi-autonomous and able to make some decisions on its own but would require a human in the loop to control the vehicle in certain situations, perhaps mandated by law, or when the computer can’t make a valid decision. Above I referred to these as “human-assisted.”

Industrial robots can repeat a set of tasks that it has been “trained” to do and adding sensors to it allows the machine to receive feedback on its actions and make corrections. The robot knowing that the part that it should be working on is misaligned can cause the robot to re-align the part or ask for help instead of completing a task which is not going to be correct at the end.

Robots are considered semi-autonomous at this point, depending on their decision-making skills.

Then there are Droids. All science fiction robots fit into this category, at least initially. Short for Android, these machines seem to have personalities and are able to perform their tasks with no supervision.

So here are my questions. Are these enough categories? Where does a typical Roomba fit into all of this? How about the current set of vehicles which can park themselves or brake to avoid accidents? What about a machine that can assist rescuers in a unsafe environment? How solid should the lines be between the categories? If the machine can be over-ridden by a human, does that mean it’s human-assisted? I don’t know the answer to this question either but I’m starting to research it because we need a better vocabulary to talk about these machines.

My Hometown

Today I participated in a Labor Day Parade in a small community south of where I live. The community is a typical small town kind of place with mostly older “Americana” kinds of streets. A big fire station on one end of the town, a largish city hall where the road turns, and lots of little mom-and-pop kinds of stores in-between. The parade included the kinds of things you’d expect, people running for office, marching bands, old cars, 4H and Scouting, and variety of local businesses showing their civic pride. Our local Shriners community is pretty active and fielded a number of bands, a float, and a variety of car clubs.
I had been offered a ride in one of the Model T’s that the Shrine was going to parade in but I was asked to fill in driving for the Shriner who normally drives the float with the band on it. And this dichotomy is what I want to talk about today.
It started when the Model T met me at my house. It was decided that I would follow them to the parade route in my personal car so that I could leave again after the parade since the driver of the Model T wanted to stay in town and enjoy the after-parade festivities. So I’m following the Model T which has spent its entire life in Colorado. It’s a gorgeous machine. And there are parts of both towns that still look the same as they did when the vehicle was new. The pavement may be a different color and the traffic lights are new, but the downtown buildings have been here for as long as the car has.
I followed the Model T in my 2015 rental car with all digital readouts, listening to satellite radio. Their driver wasn’t sure how to get back to the main road from my house so his passenger called me on the cell phone and I used the GPS to route him where he wanted to go.
It was then that it struck me how many anachronisms we were dealing with here, and how many more we’re going to have to handle in the next “few” years as the autonomous cars begin actively driving on our roads and in our communities.
There’s going to be “some period” of time while both kinds of vehicles are on the streets. This period may be mandated by law or may just occur because some people will cling to their “classic” vehicles. Right now, “classic” means 25 years or older but will there be a new term for human-controlled vehicles and autonomous? Will collectors help keep the “Golden Age” of automobiles alive?
The robot vehicles are going to have to compensate for the humans driving around them in some fashion. Right now, vehicles have lights and other devices to let the other human drivers know what the vehicle is likely to do. The cars of the future will probably talk to each other directly, allowing cars to safely operate closer to each other for instance. Right now we have spacing on the streets designed for human reaction time and comfort. If the vehicles can coordinate with each other, there’s no real reason they couldn’t be operating only a few inches from each other which might give us extra “lanes” at some point. Will we even need lanes in the future?
Conversely, if a vehicle breaks down in the middle of the road, will the autonomous vehicles be better able to handle maneuvering around the obstacle than the humans are today? Or will they do like so many tests show, if the lead car stops, the cars following it stop, too?
I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but that’s what I’m hoping to help define. I know I’m not the only one thinking about these things and that makes me feel better already.