made of a bunch of robots. This was all in the early Eighties, when there was sort of a robot euphoria. I think at least half the interest in robots was caused by Star Wars movies, which put robots in people’s minds. The other half, of course, was caused by the early success of–as they called it at the time–the hobby computer.
David: What are you currently working on?
Hans: We started a company called Seegrid, and the primary technology that’s being exploited here is something that I’ve developed over the last twenty years. This is something that I’ve been looking at in a broad way for the last ten years, and in a simpler form for ten years before that. Basically, it’s three-dimensional perception for mobile robots. We build these very detailed maps of a robot’s surroundings, based on, individually, not very precise data from sensors. The primary sensor right now is stereoscopic vision. The data from stereoscopic vision feeds the statistical grid map, where each grid cell describes what the machine knows about whether or not that particular place in space is occupied or not. It’s statistical data that gets updated each time that volume is glimpsed, and it’s adjusted up or down. And the statistical combination of many noisy readings results in a fairly reliable map.
So we’re able to do this now in real time, because of the computer power that’s just become available, and with it we have machines that can be taught a new route, in arbitrary surroundings, without any preparation of the surroundings. They basically memorize the area that they pass through, and then they can repeat it. So that’s the first product. It uses this idea in the simplest possible way. Later on we expect to recognize objects and manipulate them. So we’re basically starting out with guppy-level intelligence, which just lets the machine get around reliably, without having to prepare the environment for it. So initially they’ll be industrial machines, and later we’ll be able to do more and more things in the environment, until you have general purpose robots.
David: I can’t wait to have my own personal robot.
Hans: Yeah, a lot of people are waiting for the vacuum cleaning robot (laughter). There’s a real pent-up demand for that. When I talk about this idea to various audiences I get different reactions. If I talk to students, they sort of say, oh, that’s pretty good when we get to the vacuum cleaning robot. If I talk about it to a group of older researchers, they say about the same thing. But when I talk to a mixed audience that’s middle-aged, usually I get spontaneous applause from the whole audience (laughter). Actually past the audience. I get applause from some people that actually do the vacuuming at the lecture halls.