Momentary Lapses

Leaving aside the Theory of Relativity (Special or General), most of us experience time as an elastic dimension. We have all, at one time or another, presented ourselves at a reception desk and been told “just a moment, sir/madam/ miss/ sonny or some such epithet”. But that moment is never properly defined.

It is the same when a family member has purloined you favorite gadget. You ask how long they will be using it for and you get the reply “how long is a piece of string?” Well, if someone hands me a piece of string, I know exactly how long it is, but your sibling is dissembling. What they really are saying is “how long is a piece of stretchy elastic?” A very different thing and the situation will often end badly.

Telephone robots are particularly good at handing you the flexible moment. “Please continue to hold, your call is very important to us” and then the same boring musak is pumped into your ear, is a common experience for most of us as we desperately wait for help from a technical service guru.

Let us now turn that situation around and look at the quandary from a robot’s point of view.

Don’t be unsympathetic, now. 

This can be a real problem for a service-bot. With aging populations in many countries, the future is for more of us to have home helps in the form of robots. Visualize the situation when our care-bot is about to serve our dinner and we tell it to “wait a moment” as we shuffle off to the bathroom. How long should it wait before it decides that there is a problem? Kennedy and Trafton of the Naval Research lab. address this  in a new paper (1).

Your care-bot has to substitute calculation for common sense. In the above example, it would have to know your shuffle rate, what you were up to in the bathroom and how long that should take. I can imagine that your magazines and crossword puzzles would disappear from that room in the house!

The algorithm is clearly complex with a decision tree so the care-bot just waits, puts your dinner back in the oven, in the refrigerator or into the dog while it goes on the back porch for a sulk. Or, finally, should it drop everything and rush to break down the door and shock you back into the real world?

  1. W.G.Kennedy & J.G.Trafton, Int. J. Soc. Robot. DOI: 10.1007/s12369-011-0098-7

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