How does a robotic hive mind sound to you? Cool? Convenient? Like the burgeoning seeds of Skynet?
Whatever you might think of it, that's what scientists from five European Universities - including Philips and Eindhoven - have spent the last four years developing. Sort of. They call it RoboEarth.
According to project lead Rene van de Molengraft, RoboEarth is, at its core, "a world wide web for robots: a giant network and database depository where robots can share information and learn from each other."
"The problem right now is that robots are often developed specifically for one task," he continued. "Everyday changes that happen all the time in our environment make all the programmed actions unusable." With that in mind, Molengraft and his team created RoboEarth to serve as a sort of "ever-changing common brain" for robots, one which can be accessed or updated whenever a particular 'bot has a problem with something. It'd sort of be like looking up how to fix a car radio on the Internet, except that instead of using a computer, you'd use your brain.
Sort of like this.
"A task like opening a box of pills can be shared on RoboEarth, so other robots can do it without having to be programmed for that specific type of box," Molengraft added.
Molengraft and his team were at Eindhoven University today, testing a cadre of four robots in a mocked-up hospital room. The robots - which were all hooked up to RoboEarth - were put through a series of tasks which included serving drinks to patients.
Eventually, Molengraft hopes the system becomes widespread; a world-wide
database to which both humans and robots can upload data. Should things go as planned for his team, this is going to have one very interesting (and awesome) side effect: consumer robots. By offloading many of their computing tasks onto RoboEarth's servers,
robots can be built without requiring as much onboard computing or
What this means is that they're going to become smaller, more efficient, and - more importantly - cheaper. Because of this and similar innovations, we might well start seeing robot assistants in the home within the next decade. I'm not just talking Roombas or automatic lawnmowers, either.
Of course, while the whole idea of an ever-changing robotic group mind could certainly signify great things for the home robotics industry, it's also more than a little terrifying, when you stop to think about it - particularly if you allow robots to update it themselves. That has the potential, in the long-term, to develop into something that's actually dangerous.
I should think - or rather, I should hope - that Molengraft and his team will be putting safeguards in place to prevent RoboEarth from growing out of control Otherwise, we could well be seeing the birth of a real-world Skynet. Not a pleasant thought, is it?
That said, such a thing's not terribly likely to happen. The concept of a robotic group mind might seem a bit terrifying at first glance, but with the proper safeguards in place, it could very easily propel us into a new era of robotics. For now, at least, let's assume the scientists responsible for RoboEarth are savvy enough to remember what happens when robots can upgrade themselves without oversight.