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  INTERNATIONAL PERSONAL ROBOTICS CONGRESS - - - IPRC '84 | Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next |  

The First
International Personal Robot Congress & Exposition
Albuquerque Convention Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
April 13-15, 1984
- be part of the beginning -

A report on the First International Robotics Congress, Albuquerque, 1984.


The conference was fascinating for its contradictions. One question was asked time and time again: "What does it do ?". The contrary opinion was also voiced that a robot did nothave to be useful - it merely had to be lovable. One manufacturer reported financial success - others were merely hopeful of future performance. Perhaps it is significant that the successful robot has an easily definable task - that of education.

The sessions

The opening session reflected the desire of the organisers to put the IPRC and Albuquerque itself onto the map. The historic and unique nature of the event was plugged again and again. Asimov was self-congratulatory as ever, but highly entertaining for all that. He ranged from his influence on Joe Engelberger to the naivety of people who question robot accidents in terms of a contravention of the "three Laws of Robotics". In his anthropomorphic view of robots, he made a powerful point that the very nature of machine intelligence may differ from human intelligence in a complementary way.

Now it was time to decide between the parallel sessions, where at first I selected "Hardware Considerations". Jim Lytle launched into a businesslike attempt to define a robot, questioning the need for mobility, sensors, a manipulator and any other accepted attributes. He settled on "a Machine with human-like capabilities", and came down against the need to do useful work. However he streesed that the Hero had a useful purpose, that of education. He than got down to details of actuators, sensors and the need to apply intelligence to the interpretation of sensors.

Brent DeWitt beat about the "What does it do" bush, deducing that the robot-builder's role was parental! More practically, he addressed the problem of software transportability, and suggested a layered approach to robot software with a pyramid hierarchy. (Personally I feel that the losses in opting for a standard operating system far outweigh the advantages, except in the exploitation of easily 'borrowed' routines for standard tasks. Structured software is another matter - structure is essential.) In discussion the question of the coordination of a houseful of specialised robots arose, and was dealt with in a positive way.

The record of excellence of the speakers was then broken. The chairman gave the platform to Jonathan Oakey, who had been

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deaf since infancy. Disastrously this seemed to be his first experience of public speaking, and he read painfully from excessive notes with long pauses. This brought the section to a close, and I moved to the session on Business Opportunities.

Douglas Bonham had already started to give an account of the success of Hero I. He gave an impressive list of its public appearances and news reports. Although outsold by other electronic products, Hero I is Heath Company's best selling educational product. Hero I has outsold robots of all types throughout the world, and Heath has between 70% and 90% of the personal robot market. "The easy sales have been made." He predicted a large market in the domestic robot business - but suggested that there were much easier pickings to be made elsewhere. Again he stressed that the answer to "what does it do" was education.

Joe Bosworth once more stressed the "what does it do" issue. He described the RB5X's problems as being due to "a mature distribution scheme for an immature product." With 16 to 20 representatives and 80 to 90 dealers, the sad conclusion was that the product was not ready for the market. The industry is a moving target; what will happen when people with real marketing money enter into competition?

Skip Steveley spoke patriotically about Androbot. Topo is a computer peripheral, with an optical link which is upset by lasers at press launches. Bob is self contained, and is rather over-engineered. He stressed the need for aggressive marketing, and for qualified people to demonstrate them. He was well steeped in Nolan's fantasies, looking forward to robots which would "do a lot more."

At this point I returned to the Hardware session to make contact with Dan Prendergast. I listened to Tom Carroll and Richard Prather describing their "home-grown" robots. Many technical details were interesting, but not important from an exploitation point of view. I was then able to present an outline of the "Robot Ping-Pong" contest in the last ten minutes of the session.

The afternoon was filled with the exhibition. Several ingenious gadgets were on display, but the dominant robots were Topo, Bob, RB5X and Hero I - apart from a number of remotely controlled "show robots". Robot capabilities seemed to be limited to stilted speech, measurement of distance and the ability to follow a few feet behlng a human "master". The nearest to a practical application was a lawn-mower which could remember its remotely-guided program. Nolan made dark remarks about not wanting to be responsible for "mowing the baby".

Saturday's sessions started with guest presentations including one by Joe Engelberger. He mentioned the Robot Industries Association, hoping that the personal roboticists would become members. He also aligned himself with the "it

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must do something" camp. A memorable description of the task of assembly by robot: "Rub petroleum jelly on your glasses. Tie one hand behind your back. Put a mitten on that hand, and then pick up chopsticks."

Nolan Bushnell then painted the verbal picture expected of him, saying that "Fun sells." He cast the robot as a pet and as a companion, and looked forward to robot markets four to six times the computer market. "Less than 10% of the population wrote a letter last year." "Many people own a dog, and wish that it could speak English." "Many lonely and perhaps senile people need to be reminded to take their medicine." Perhaps his charisma will be sufficient to influence the market, at least in the national home of Walt Disney.

Nolan's opinions were reflected throughout the "Futures" session. In particular, Fred d'Ignazio presented a cloyingly sentimental picture of his children dressing up Topo, of them being woken by Topo in the morning and giving the robot a hug.

Nelson Winkless went entertainingly into more practical detail. He suggested a robot which now and then would put a seal-like flipper around its owner's waist. After a display of seeming affection, it might telephone his doctor to warn of high blood-pressure or such. "What about the responsibility of paying for false alarm calls ?"

Meeting of the BPEMG

Early on Saturday afternoon the British contingent met to discuss the formation of the British Personal Robot Manufacturers' Group. Present were John Billingsley, Robin Bradbeer, David Buckley, Graham Dobney, Geoff Henney, Peter Matthews, and Richard Moyle. Joe Bosworth looked in for part of the meeting. Nine prime objectives were identified:
1. To lobby Government.
2. To determine legal liability.
3. To influence education.
4. To maintain standards of after-sales service.
5. To establish standards, in the general sense.
6. To be a channel through which members could affiliate to the international body.
7. To attract funds for R & D.
8. To help members to get government assistance to attend international meetings.
9. To fund national representation at trade meetings abroad, such as next year's fair in Tsukuba.

Some discussion followed on qualification for membership -should it be limited to manufacturers, should wholesalers be included, should a lay membership receive the newsletter? It is possible that the criterion for membership will be willingness to pay the fees!

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Meeting of the NPRA

At 6.30 a meeting was called to discuss the National Personal Robot Association - the American version of the previous meeting. Joe Bosworth led discussion via the difference between a Trade Association and a Professional Association, pointing out the need to form some association to take on the organisation of next year's show - few of this year's organisers were prepared to volunteer again.

He described the Paris meeting[1] briefly, and then went on to outline some objectives:
1. To deal with anticipated Government regulations.
2. To relate to the housing industry.
3. To relate to the appliance industry and establish protocols.
4. To impress financial institutions.
5. To consider ethics, warranties to customers.
6. To focus publicity, and to communicate with amateur affiliates.

The 'selling' job then started on convincing those present that the association should come under the wing of the Robot Industries Association. It was pointed out that 300 companies were members, that RIA hired professional congressional lobbyists and that RIA had a professional show management group. The deficit of the present conference of $28,000 was made light of, but clearly made an impression on those present when it was suggested that next year's organisers might have to guarantee any losses. Joe Engelberger joined in the rhetoric, and a unanimous vote was taken that the committee should sound out the possibilities of RIA affiliation.


It was important to attend the conference, as much to survey the level of American activity as to attend the technical sessions. I found the lack of technical sophistication surprising. Many of the 'star' features of the robots had been anticipated by Micromice two years ago, such as the ability to judge and speak of distance, and to navigate by sonar. (A large question-mark still hangs over the products likely to be launched from Japan.)

The formation of the British group will reinforce support for the International Personal Robot Association, but the affiliation of the American group to an organisation as large as the RIA may perhaps be unsettling.

John Billingsley, 1984.

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[1] Robotics at home, A forum sponsored by NATA Industries, 2nd and 3rd March 1984,
      Hotel Le Bristol, Paris.

My Thanks for generous contributions from: Paul J. Mattaboni, Nels Winkless, David Buckley, John Boisvert, and Others

Source: John Billingsley - Updated 11-14-2009