The movies have brainwashed us into thinking that robots should look like people, but the revolution isn’t turning out that way. How are the machines changing, and how will they change us? DISCOVER, with the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University, posed these questions to four experts in a panel discussion and in video interviews with each scientist individually. Below are the video interviews and the transcript of the panel discussion.
Robin Murphy of Texas A&M is an expert in rescue robots; Red Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon designs robots that work in difficult environments; Javier Movellan of U.C. San Diego studies how robots interact with children; and Rodney Brooks of MIT founded iRobot, maker of the Roomba. Editor in chief Corey S. Powell moderated the panel.
Powell: Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is a robot?
Brooks: A robot is something that senses the world, does some sort of computation, and decides to take an action outside of its physical extremity. That action might be moving around, or it might be grabbing something and moving it. I say “outside its extremity” because I don’t like to let dishwashers be defined as robots.
Whittaker: I’m a little more liberal about that. I worked with robots that cleaned up the Three Mile Island nuclear accident [from 1984 to 1986]. Those were remote controlled, and one of the knocks against them was that they weren’t real robots. Those machines that are tour guides to the Titanic or our eyes on Mars don’t do a lot of thinking either, but they’re good enough in my book.
Movellan: The idea that a system has to operate in space and time, with real-time constraints, is critical. It’s also critical to understand the intelligence of these things—it’s not just intelligence in general but an intelligence situated in a particular world.
Murphy: And I would add that sometimes this intelligence is shared. Is the robot just the physical entity at Three Mile Island or at a disaster site or on Mars? Or is it also right here with us? More and more robots are part of a shared cognition system.
Rodney, you’ve talked about four goals that robot researchers should be aiming for. What are they?
Brooks: First, the object-recognition capabilities of a 2-year-old child. You can show a 2-year-old a chair that he’s never seen before, and he’ll be able to say, “That’s a chair.” Our computer vision systems are not that good. But if our robots did have that capability, we’d be able to do a whole lot more.
Second, the language capabilities of a 4-year-old child. When you talk to a 4-year-old, you hardly have to dumb down your grammar at all. That is much better than our current speech systems can do.
Third, the manual dexterity of a 6-year-old child. A 6-year-old can tie his shoelaces. A 6-year-old can do every operation that a Chinese worker does in a factory. That level of dexterity, which would require a combination of new sorts of sensors, new sorts of actuators, and new algorithms, will let our robots do a whole lot more in the world.
Fourth, the social understanding of an 8- or 9-year-old child. Eight- or 9-year-olds understand the difference between their knowledge of the world and the knowledge of someone they are interacting with. When showing a robot how to do a task, they know to look at where the eyes of the robot are looking. They also know how to take social cues from the robot.
If we make progress in any of those four directions our robots will get a lot better than they are now.
We’ve already had a lot of success with robots in space. The Obama administration recently announced plans to cancel NASA’s Ares rockets and Orion capsule [updated in Obama's April speech], which were intended to take humans back to the moon—and Red, you don’t look at all sad about that. Why not?
Whittaker: This is actually very good news for robotics. Robot missions don’t require immense launch payloads. You don’t have to keep humans warm, keep them fed and watered and breathing.
In fact, you’re working now on a robotic mission that will be done without government funding, right?
Whittaker: Google is offering a $20 million prize for the first robot that sends television signals from the moon, and I intend to win that. There are bonuses for traveling a certain distance and for navigating to a place where humans have sent things before [for instance to the Apollo sites]. That is more deliberative than robotic wandering. It’s nonfederal, but that’s how all of the great technological incentives work. When Lindbergh flew to Paris for his $25,000, it wasn’t a federal program. Great prizes completely transform people’s belief, catapult an industry, and drive technology. And they’re rather fun.
What about all the money NASA has already invested in these rockets? Is there a way to merge the manned program with a robotics program?
Whittaker: Robotic precursors could vastly improve the prospects for human exploration. For example, an orbiting spacecraft recently discovered the opening to a lunar cave. There are extensive caves on the moon, and they’re important because humans don’t do well in the extreme heat and the extreme cold on the surface. Those caves are waiting to be explored, but clearly no human would be the first one in. If you lose 10 robots exploring those caves, you don’t worry about it, but if you lose one person, it could shut down your entire space program.
There are also places near the poles of the moon where it stays light for months at a time. That is arguably the most valuable real estate in the solar system [because solar energy would be available so much of the time]. What a gift it would be for robots to confirm, survey, and establish these areas.
Brooks: In addition to precursor missions, the most astounding thing for us as humans will be if we discover life somewhere else. We’re looking at extrasolar planets [ones around other stars], but there are also a bunch of places in our solar system that look promising—the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and back again to Mars. For the cost of two shuttle launches, we could have an extensive unmanned mission to each of those places. If Obama’s policy frees up money for robotic probes, it increases our chances of detecting life. That would open up whole new vistas in our understanding, and it would change us philosophically.