The Today Show -- Behind the Curtain

by G. D. Armstrong

Copyright 2000. All rights reserved. Please ask before you reprint.

The following is a behind-the-scenes look at Flo and Xavier's experience at the Today Show by Greg Armstrong, who maintains the Robot Learning Labs fleet of mobile robots. Armstrong and graduate student Mike Montemerlo accompanied the two robots and researchers Sebastian Thrun and Reid Simmons, who also appeared on the show. (-Editor of Carnegie Mellon News)

Autonomous robots like Xavier and Flo are able to do everything without human intervention. Yeah, right.

Well, maybe I shouldn't be so hard on them. After all, they had just been packed into crates, rushed from Pittsburgh to New York City and made to perform on live national televisiona rare thing for a robot. And for those of you who saw the Today Show on New Years Eve, they looked great. At least, pretty darn good for the three and a half minutes that they were on.

Florence, the nursebot, is a prototype; I expected some troubles with her. She's only a few months old and we are integrating many new things into her. Ask her the weather, the time, or even what is on TV and she will search the World Wide Web to tell you. She'll follow you around your home, reminding you of appointments, birthdays, and when to take your vitamins. One day, she will even be your telephone, or an internet video phone, and she can even decide if she should call your doctor, or the police.

Xavier has a grand history: travelling over 150 miles through Wean Hall over the past 5 years, telling jokes, making deliveries, and even standing in line to buy coffee. He's even strutted his stuff at the Governor's home in Harrisburg.

But Flo and Xavier were never in an environment like the Today Show set. There were problems, severe problems. I've heard that actors complain about the heat under the lights on camera or stage, and now I can truly sympathize. Actually, it was quite cozy when the lights were on because the studio is heated by the lights. This is winter and when the lights werent on, it was freezing. Believe me, I know. I spent about 14 hours on the set, only those fateful few minutes with all the lights on.

That wasn't the big problem. All of those lights are electrical and they require an enormous amount of power to light the set. All that power passes through a large number of cables around the set, producing electro-magnetic waves. I was generating a static electrical charge even when I was sitting still.

If I were generating a charge, think about Xavier and Flo, who are essentially great big capacitors. Not a pretty picture, is it? Especially since these robots are controlled by some of the most delicate electronics on the open market: Intel Pentium Processors.

Actually, it wasn't too hard on Xavier, because he is metal all around, so his electric field is well distributed. Flo has a non-conductive fabric skin and metal skeleton. Flo's computer crashed every time we touched her. It took about 20 minutes to get everything running again when that happened.

Xavier was not totally immune to the powerful fields fluctuating about the room. Once we lost one of his three computers, and another time his sonar system crashed. Most importantly, much of the power he picked up was channeled into his sonar ring. He was seeing ghosts constantly. Needless to say, he could not walk a straight line if his drivers license depended on it.

In the end, we had two rules -- don't touch Flo, and don't step in front of Xavier. We had to turn off Xaviers sonar system, so he was essentially blind.

We decided not trust Flo's speech recognition to work perfectly. With only three and a half minutes to talk about two very important robots, we didn't want Katie Couric to keep repeating a question to Flo the whole time trying to get her to understand. So we cheated.

Mike Montemerlo and I were behind a wall, with computers connected to Flo and Xavier via a radio Ethernet link. Mike monitored Flo's recognition program, and when she was wrong (only once, fortunately) he was able to cue her to give the correct response. Together, we also prompted the robots to take certain actions on cue. As the balloonist in Oz, we were indeed the men behind the curtain.

I take heart in realizing that even while Xavier and Flo were not fully autonomous on that short segment of the Today Show, they actually do work quite well in the environments for which they were built.

But I will be thankful if I never have to do live TV with them ever again.

Let me know what you think.

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