for the SHADOW Project

25 Oct. 1986 - Richard Greenhill
Document created: 2nd December 1996
Last Modified: Thursday, 21-Jun-2012 14:04:08 BST







is to build a genuinely useful general-purpose robot, at a price which people, rather than just institutions, can afford.


is to imitate the human body as far as possible, in terms of overall shape, size, freedom of movement, power and precision. As a rule of thumb, 90% of human performance is seen as a sensible target for each domain. (It would appear difficult to surpass the human body for strength, or speed, or precision, or indeed any other quality except certain facile types of computation.)


More or less anything, we hope! Of course, to start with, a SHADOW robot will only be able to do a few very simple things, and it'll do those badly, slowly and incompletely. Price will be high and performance poor, so that only rich, patient and dedicated people, or maybe people who are able and willing to pay for gimmicks will be able to afford them. But as time goes by, price will fall and performance improve, until everyone can afford one or more, and the SHADOWs are capable of undertaking almost any task we wish. One might compare the project to a child (up to a point!) who was born, say, in 1985. By 1992 (aged 7) it might be able to do one task, but really it'd be quicker to do it yourself, and it only does 90% of it anyway.

By 1995 (aged 10) it should be able to do two or three tasks, but still slowly and incompletely. By 2000 (aged 15) it should be able to do a wide range of things, but still with errors and omissions (!) By 2005 (aged 20) it will have come of age! Lets look at what it ought to be able to do by now... ....in the house...in the factory...in the fields...in service. (Note that this was written in 1986...)


First and foremost, in the kitchen: a SHADOW robot should be able to go to the fridge, freezer or cupboard, pull it open, look inside (it should hold in memory a list of contents with the time and date they were put in, together with their shelf-life) pick up different types of container or food item, take them out and close the door, adjusting the memorised list of contents... take vegetables (say) to the sink. (Having if necessary already cleared space and perhaps filled the sink by turning normal taps on until it is full enough, and checking that it is not going to overflow!)
A SHADOW robot should be able to wash, peel, scrape, scrub or take the eyes out (or whatever), of a reasonable range of vegetables. It will probably not do the job as well as a human being, so the vegetables will need to be checked. So when you come home, you should find that, if required, your SHADOW has

* prepared all the vegetables ready for you to check and spend a minute or so finalising,
* defrosted the meat,
* pre-heated the oven
* or maybe actually put the meat on...

(obviously we have to be very careful about everything to do with heat, gas, electricity and water or compressed air. The benefits of your SHADOW actually cooking, or even turning on the oven to preheat it, will have to be postponed until some years' proven reliability have ensured that the danger is no higher than when humans do these activities.) We are assuming that at this stage in its development, SHADOW is not being trusted to deal with the dangerous and difficult task of doing the actual cooking, but it should have

* cleared, cleaned and laid the table,

* got out the wine (!) it had remembered to put to cool in the fridge 90 mins previously, or opened it to `breathe'
* maybe have squeezed six oranges into a glass...
* put out the butter 20 minutes before the meal so it's not too hard,
* opened a tin of cat-food and put it on a plate on the floor for the cat...

While you cook, a SHADOW robot could act as an extra pair of hands. It could:

* hold the saucepan to stop it moving as you stir,
* or maybe (if we decide its safe) stir the porridge/fudge/gravy/custard/ scrambled egg/soup or whatever.
* It could shake the omelette pan continuously to prevent sticking;
* get the phone if it rings at the crucial moment,
* or answer the door ditto;
* set its internal timer to go off when the boiled eggs are done.
* It could be told to remember when the stock needs turning off, thus avoiding one or two nasty burnt-out saucepans...
* It would detect smoke; if you said it was alright you liked seared steak it wouldn't ring the fire brigade on its built-in telephone...
* It could pass and hold things,
* drain things,
* rinse things, tidy things away as you work.
* It would be able to do those tedious things you normally wouldn't bother to do, such as make home-made mayonnaise.

In fact you could eat more healthy, home-made food precisely because your SHADOW would be able to do all the repetitive things you didn't have time to do when you bought convenience foods.

Home-made bread every day? Churn your own butter, cream, yoghurt: home-made pasta, fresh-ground and roasted coffee (your SHADOW just puts it in a dry clean saucepan and keeps it shaking for twenty minutes...) Let your SHADOW take all the bones out of the fish, marinate the meat, chop the herbs, chop fine micro-salads, farm beansprouts...Your SHADOW would actually replace certain kitchen gadgets: for example, an American Food Processor is great when you are doing a huge amount of chopping or slicing, but for a small amount it's just not worth the hassle of getting it out, plugging it in, and then washing it all afterwards, leaving it to dry before putting it back in the cupboard. Your SHADOW will do the same job, albeit slower, with just a normal knife and chopping board, and it'll wash those up afterwards, sharpening the knife if necessary. You might even get it to do the dishes by hand (so to speak), thus saving the price of a dishwasher and the space. Armed with a simple whisk, it could mix, whip or blend food with infinite patience: (although you'd still need the electric mixer for high-speed mixing.)

And think what your SHADOW could do with a piping syringe full of icing!And let your SHADOW clean up afterwards! Clean the oven, the floor, the cat, the windows, the fridge, the worksurfaces, hob, cupboard doors. While you have supper, your SHADOW could act as waiter, clearing the dishes and bringing on the fresh fruit salad; then after you stagger away from the table, it would clear away, load the dishwasher, run and empty it, lay the table for breakfast.

Good morning, your wonderfulness! Here is a cup of tea and the papers. Would you like me to put the television on the end of the bed? Which clothes do you want me to warm up for you? Don't forget your eyedrops. Today is Thursday, April the first, you have an appointment with the osteopath at 11.30 and your niece's birthday is in three days. Last year you gave her an electric screwdriver, would you like to hear a list of presents in the Argos catalogue in the same price range? There is an article about robots on page three of the Sun. The weather forecast is for rain later, your bath is full and ready. Here is your electric razor...

Of course you may dismiss the above as frivolous, but what about the vacuum cleaning? What about picking up all toys, newspapers, rubbish etc. and putting everything back in its correct place? Watering the plants. Washing the windows, doors, walls: emptying the rubbish bin into the dustbin: scouring the sink. Cleaning the bath, the lavatory. Polishing the silver and the brass? (Silver? Brass?) No need to paint varnish on the front door knob to stop it going dark brown. Talking of painting, your SHADOW would be able to paint walls, woodwork and so on, though probably not paper the ceiling...
....make the bed, iron the sheets, empty the washing machine, hang out the washing, check if its dry, take it in if it rains, fold it and put it in the airing cupboard for two days, then in the drawer. If the washing-machine breaks down, your SHADOW could be told to stand over a big bowl of suds and clothes, gently shaking the wash for an hour or so, even pummelling the clothes with its fist and so on, then rinsing and wringing them out (not easy, that one...)
It must now be admitted that it would take not one but a small squad of Shadows to achieve all the above; but then again, most people would only want a selection of the aforementioned services.
The point is, there's plenty to do in the house! The big question is: Can a SHADOW robot do these things?


As well as being useful in the house, a SHADOW robot has a major role to play as Gardener. Some people, of course, regard all gardening as pure pleasure, but for others there are some chores, such as mowing the lawn, weeding and sweeping up the leaves, which could be advantageously left for your SHADOW to do.
Your SHADOW could also decimate the snail and slug population, spike the lawn, pick up twigs and general debris, sweep paths, clip edges, check if the soil is too dry and water when necessary. It could also act as a burgular alarm, signalling to the house and/or telephoning the police, possibly videoing any intruders (but not attacking them!)

The garden SHADOW has some time on its hands, as the grass doesn't grow that fast, so could run a small vegetable farm for you. This could be quite ambitious, since a SHADOW robot could probably spend several hours every day working on it, so the vegetables might be able to supply a large portion of your needs, inasfar as the seasons allow! Another boost to your health and gourmet enjoyment! a SHADOW robot has the patience to eradicate greenfly, white fly or black-fly the hard way, one at a time...

So much for the household chores: another role that your SHADOW could play is as your assistant. Four hands are better than two: with time you could achieve a high degree of co-ordination with your SHADOW for whatever activities you may be interested in doing.

So... Lets Look at your SHADOW and Leisure!

At the lowest level, your SHADOW could just act as an intelligent tripod. An enthusiastic Anglepoise, just patiently standing there holding a lamp, your book, the papers, a magnifying glass, a cushion, mirror, TV, radio, tape-recorder, telephone, camera, reflector, hairdryer, towel... the other end of a tape measure, length of material, piece of string. (This sort of thing may seem a waste of a relatively expensive and highly complicated piece of machinery: like using a computer as a book-rest. However, there are 24 hours a day as far as your SHADOW is concerned, so if you don't need it for anything else, why not use it for something very simple. It may even be useful for your SHADOW to do some processing and/or checking of settings while it has a rest from more complex activities.)

Your SHADOW could help in many activities as an extra pair of hands. Soldering requires four hands, so does pouring fudge, darning, some kinds of sewing, swapping lenses between two cameras. You and your SHADOW could learn to carry out craft work as a team. Imagine the advantage of having your SHADOW hold the nail as you swing at it! For carpentry, your SHADOW could help to hold the work still as you saw it or plane it. your SHADOW could sandpaper everything to a satin finish, never getting bored even after three days fine sandpapering! Then it could French-polish it to a brilliant shine. Just as complex filigree and ornamentation became possible with cheap human labour in the middle ages, so it will again. You do one or two scrolls and your SHADOW copies them all the way round, however fine.

The same thing with paint or any other form of decoration: you could design your own wallpaper and have your SHADOW painstakingly execute it thousands of times over. Whats more, each would be slightly different. You could evolve new painting techniques, whereby you teach your SHADOW how to carry out routine processes such as filling in extensive background areas or other less important areas, much as, say, Renaissance painters used apprentices. Thus it would be possible to work with images containing huge amounts of fine detail: for example trees, grass, cloth, basketword, hair, water and so on. These paintings might or might not be realistic: they might also exploit aspects of the robot's particular way of going about things which we cannot at present guess at. Computer graphics have often suffered from the dead hand of simplistic mathematics, and a tendency to unremitting sameness: on the other hand it has produced some very exciting, new and unpreconceived-of work. And the possibilities for rich, marvellous, amazing paintings might be the very challenge the medium is waiting for!

Music is another domain where your SHADOW could have an enormous role to play: again, starting at the lowest level, it could just be used to hold music in the right place and turn the pages...and maybe move its finger along to help you keep the place...provide a metronome...(maybe quietly so noone else can hear it)...and maybe a sotto vocce A at a secret signal >from you, so you keep in tune...(or should it be a G ?)

On the piano, your SHADOW could certainly play a base riff or chord sequence while you extemporise on the upper ivories. What about your own drummer, though ?(but don't expect high-speed drum solos!) Or just accompanying you on another instrument. Given the programming, your SHADOW could just watch you play, extract the underlying principles you are adhering to (key, scale, colour, time, energy, mood or whatever) and slowly join in. After a great deal of practice, you could begin to play as if four-handed. And your SHADOW would innovate! An excellent knowledge of musical theory would certainly allow it to spot all sorts of possibilities that neither you nor, probably, anyone else, has ever stumbled upon. This has already happened with computers in the domain of chess, where innovation must surely be far less likely! (If you feel that music should be played by humans and humans only... fine! You won't have to use robots, any more than painters had to use cameras when those were invented.) Sport may not be an area in which one would expect robots to play a part, but there may be some surprises in store. If the problem of the supply of energy can be reasonably solved, your SHADOW would be able to leave the domestic or work environment and move further afield. It would not be as absurd as it might sound, for your SHADOW to climb onto the back seat of a tandem and help you peddle round the countryside!

Why not a motor-bike, you may well ask? Well, for one thing your SHADOW will be quieter (virtually silent, we hope): also, it follows the concept of using one piece of machinery for many different tasks, which can save a lot of money: but most of all, when you get off the bike, your SHADOW remains to serve you in whatever way it can. It might carry the bike, and/or the luggage, up steps, or onto a train, across a field or whatever. If you are camping, your SHADOW might be able to help get things ready (although it is unlikely that by the year 2005 your SHADOW will have been trained to put up a tent, as this is such a specialist area.)

Still on the subject of sport, a SHADOW robot should be able by this time to do some simple movements such as throw a ball, or hit one with a racket - though probably only as well as a ten-year old child. However, as time goes on, SHADOW will become good enough at least to give you the chance of some training.

For example, take your SHADOW and a bag of balls to a tennis court. You practice serving, while your SHADOW spends its time picking up the balls and lobbing them back down your end. To improve your backhand, your SHADOW could repeatedly throw a ball to (roughly) the same place, with, of course, infinite patience.

Your SHADOW will be able to play table tennis (on a standard table and with normal background and lighting). Again, only as well as a child, but maybe enough to give you as many hours of practice as you want; not as good as having a real opponent, but a clear improvement on a punch-bag.

Whatever recreational activities you are interested in, it is most likely that your SHADOW would be able to make a significant contribution, with new uses emerging all the time: in fact using your SHADOW would be an art in itself!
And in all these activities, you would be taking the creative lead: you'd be the conductor; your SHADOW would be the apprentice, the slave, the unpaid dogsbody who never, ever gets bored!

Science fiction films often portray robots as having almost universal knowledge: be that as it may, your SHADOW would certainly know the time, date, correct spelling of any word, a few thousand phone numbers and other essential facts. It would of course be able to do maths... It could be loaded with whatever computer software is by then available for any purpose you might wish. If you are still going to the supermarket by the year 2005, at least your SHADOW will be able to plug a bar-code reader into its chest and b able to tell you precisely how much you've spent so far, comparative prices and so on. It would of course push the trolley, unload it at the checkout, load and carry the bags to the car.

How else might your SHADOW make itself useful in the house? Well, it could take care of things when you are away, or just asleep, such as feeding animals, tending plants, dialing 999 in the event of a burglary or fire or flood, or 'phoning you if anything untoward should occur. (The particular advantages to the old or infirm will be dealt with separately) It could get the house ready for your return: switch on the heating, lights, air beds, even have some food ready... (unfinished)
(To be added: Disabled, Old people, Educational, Workplace, Third World etc)

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