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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Cybernetics and automation
Cybernetics and automation
Keywords: Automation, Cybernetics, Research, Technological developments
Slow progress. Robots, we have been told for over a decade, will take over our homes, they will carry out all those routine tasks that householders find boring or unpleasant; it is only now, however, that that prediction is slowly being shown to be true. Although a great number of domestic robot prototypes have been described to us, very few proved to be marketable for the home. Last year a robot mower was marketed for use in domestic gardens. We have yet, however, to learn whether it proved to be a viable investment for both the maker and user. Probotics, the US company, has already introduced, in 1999, a robotic butler who was called Cye. The prospects for the venture seemed good and at a cost of £500 it could well be a popular addition to the home appliances that are now so easily acquired. Even Sony has been testing the market and has produced for sale a robotic dog called Aibo. Other commercial ventures are in the offing and predictions that our homes will be staffed by automated devices and mobile robots may well be true, but more likely, at the present rate of introduction, such a scenario will not occur until 2020 rather than 2001.
Progress has been reported in another area of domestic importance. Robot cleaners are now not just prototypes but actually available for purchase. The company Dyson is currently offering a robotic vacuum cleaner and there are hopes that the prototype cleaner publicised by Electrolux will be marketed.
Dyson's new robotic vacuum cleaner
Dyson's new robotic vacuum cleaner is on sale for £2,500. The company was the first to invent a vacuum cleaner without a bag and now once again it seems to have beaten its commercial rivals. The target date for selling it is early 2000, when it is to be sold under the name Dyson DCO6. The company claims that not only does the user not need to push it but once set it will move around a room avoiding any obstacles while it cleans the floor. It is a battery-powered machine and its rechargeable power pack will keep it running for half an hour. This is enough, the company claims, to clean several rooms. The machine has two settings. The lowest, we are told, is 0.25m per second and at this speed it is capable of covering a room that is 3m by 4m in 11 minutes. The actual recharging process, the company says, takes about an hour. Dyson also says that the cleaner does not need programming and it says it could cover any part of a room. It has been equipped with a "floating head" which is designed to get the machine into tight corners. It also takes a spiral route to ensure that it gets to every spot.
Cyberneticians will be interested in its design since it incorporates a number of features that could only have been developed from the work of researchers in this field. It has, for example, a set of more than 50 sensors feeding three on-board computers to assist its navigation. The company says the technological design is such that it can make 16 decisions a second and navigate without hitting furniture, children or, indeed, pets. It is also programmed so that it can work out when it is approaching the top of the stairs so that it is not in danger of falling down them. The company have to admit, however, that the user has to empty the dust. There is therefore going to be a market for the first developer who can design the "self-emptying" robot-vac. The robot looks extremely compact, with the main part of its body housing the dust receptacle; propulsion appears to be from two wheels set at each side of the device. Dyson does not expect the price to fall in the near future. We all await the outcome of its introduction.
For many decades we have been promised the "automated house". Already the delivery of systems that will provide us with "automated housework" are late in delivery. Domestic robots, for example, are just, as we have seen, making an appearance on the domestic markets. Some buildings developers now see the prospect of automation in the home within the next few years as a real challenge. Modern technology, particularly the new advanced communications systems, provide us with enormous opportunities. Networks such as the Internet provide us with the means of controlling our homes from anywhere in the world. The latest mobile phones give Internet links so that we can control the heating in our houses from across the globe. Satellite linked telephones, for example, dispense with the need to control the house from a conventional computer terminal. If a mobile satellite phone is used, the problems which still exist over "reception" vanish. Technology writers fill the pages of the press with articles about the "smart house", they usually consist of a catalogue of what is indeed possible if the latest devices are installed. Unfortunately, many are not available in the markets or, indeed, fully tested. It was of interest to those involved with research in the fields of communication to read of what is described as "Europe's first Internet house". The house is not the figment of the imagination of a technology journalist, but actually has been built and has a price tag and is for sale now.
The house, we are told, is at Watford, London and costs £500,000. The house is packed with high-tech features. Heating and lighting can be controlled from a palm-held Web pad from anywhere inside the house or outside it. The heating is similarly controlled via the Internet. You can therefore decide, if you wish, the temperature of various rooms from anywhere in the world. As with such a lot of modern high-tech equipment it is often a question of whether it is a facility that you really want to use. Other features built into the smart house allow the owners to monitor each room and control, for example, what happens in the garden. The sprinkler system is easily activated from the Web pad.
The kitchen is now, it would appear, the target of innovators. The "smart fridge" has already been described in so many newspapers. Whether it is realistic to suppose that most families would need such a self-stocking and ordering system is questionable. In the kitchen of the house that is now available, we are told that a scanner could search through the bar codes of food tins to decide whether there was enough ingredients to make a meal. If not then an order will be sent to the local supermarket. Most observers are sceptical whether such systems are viable. Other machines can be activated from anywhere in the house so that the coffee machine or the kettle could be switched on from the bedroom.
The use of a PC in the study, for example, brings nothing new, in that it enables the householders to access any information network. It becomes, as it is already in many homes, a virtual office that enables you to arrange almost anything from repairs to the house to travel. In the house described, a teenager's bedroom is equipped with a Sega Dreamcast computer games device so that the games can be downloaded at a touch of a button. One feature available, the house builders say, is-designed to fight crime. Anti-crime measures are built-in so that, they say:
The curtains are drawn automatically from a laptop and a would-be burglar's face would be caught on camera and distributed on the Internet within minutes.
The automated house was built by Laing Homes and wired by Cisco-Systems, a US company that specialises in networking on the Internet. Cisco-Systems has astonished its potential customers by reporting that:
The Japanese have invented an Internet toilet which weighs what is deposited and tells you if you need more roughage. We did not think people were ready for that just yet.
The extent of the cable required in the "Internet house" is given by the builders, who say that connections for 72 power points were provided with four ISDN lines, four Compaq PCs and four Webcams all to be concealed in a "nerve centre" somewhere in the house. Security precautions have been taken and the systems only operate on receipt of the houseowner's own password. Anti-hacking systems have also been installed. An idea of the cost of equipping the purpose-built house is given by the developers, who quote £8,000 to wire the whole house to the Internet. Another £20,000 of new technological devices, they claim, has been included. The system designers do believe, however, that these prices will fall in the future. The developers say that they intend to build more properties with a similar technology. More information about the building and system design can be obtained from: www.lainghomes.co.uk and www.cisco.com/go/ihome