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Will Small Step for Robots Lead to Giant Leap for Robotkind?

October 29, 2010 at 6:08 PM EDT
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How close are we to being replaced by robots? NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on efforts to engineer robots that are eerily similar to humans and animals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a change of pace. Just how close are we to being replaced by robots? NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien examines the efforts under way to develop robots that are just like us.

MILES O’BRIEN: Who says you need to be human to have the right stuff?

MAN: I am going to show you some demonstrations as to the capabilities of the robot. One of the most important features of the robot are its hands. It has, obviously, five fingers.

MILES O’BRIEN: They call it Robonaut. And it is headed to the International Space Station on the last mission for the shuttle Discovery. It’s the first humanoid robot to fly in space.

STEVE LINDSEY, commander, Discovery: We are going to figure out exactly how you would use this technology to assist astronauts, as well as how you would use this technology to assist humans on the ground, because it has spinoffs everywhere.

MILES O’BRIEN: The idea, eventually, astronauts will use Robonaut as an assistant on space walks, and, who knows, maybe, one day, to clean the space station toilet.

So, the astronauts are getting a robot butler. Are you jealous? I sure am.

ACTOR: Danger, danger. Force level building to fatal intensity.

MILES O’BRIEN: I have always wanted what Will Robinson, George Jetson, and Luke Skywalker have.

ANTHONY DANIELS, actor: That’s how we came to be in your service, if you take my meaning, sir.

MILES O’BRIEN: You know, a robot servant to do my bidding, my dirty work. It seems like that idea is languishing in around-the-corner purgatory, with the flying car, fusion power, and the jet pack.

A lot has changed over the years. Robotic devices are everywhere, on assembly lines, disarming bombs, helping the disabled, even sucking up dust bunnies. They are smarter than ever, but, unlike Hollywood’s robots, they only excel when the task is very narrow and clearly defined.

PIETER ABBEEL, University of California, Berkeley: And, for robots, it’s really easy these days to do repeated motions very precisely. It’s very hard to deal with variation like this, where, every time, it is looking at the towel and seeing something different.

MILES O’BRIEN: This really hit home for me when I saw this robot in Pieter Abbeel’s lab at U.C. Berkeley.

I’m going to outfold this robot, darn it.

He has taught the device to fold clothing. In the world of robots, that’s a big deal. It takes about 20 minutes to fold one measly towel. Why? Computers are smart enough to beat the world’s greatest chess master. Why are robots flummoxed by a dirty rag? Well, it’s complicated.

MARVIN MINSKY, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: There’s still no machine that can solve everyday commonsensical problems.

MILES O’BRIEN: Marvin Minsky helped create the field we call artificial intelligence, you know, making computers think like us. Over the years, he has stumbled on a surprising paradox: What’s hard for us is simple for robots, and vice versa.

MARVIN MINSKY: If somebody is very good at some skill, it’s because they know about 20,000 fragments of knowledge or process or whatever.

MILES O’BRIEN: But to have common sense, the mundane skills you need to get through the day and fold the clothes, you need a few million fragments of skill, knowledge and insight.

MARVIN MINSKY: So, this advanced mathematics came easily, and then the high school-type mathematics was a little later, and we are still not at the age of the 4- or 5-year-old.

MILES O’BRIEN: Humanoid robots are also having a hard time learning to walk.

How difficult a problem is it?

ROBERT PLAYTER, Boston Dynamics: It’s — it’s difficult, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

MILES O’BRIEN: Rob Playter is with a company called Boston Dynamics. This is the home of BigDog. BigDog was built at the behest of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They’re seeking a mechanical mule for foot soldiers in the next four years or so.

Powered by a two-stroke engine, hydraulic actuators, a gyroscope, and some breakthrough software, this prototype can slog through some pretty rugged terrain. It has a remarkable sense of balance and the ability and agility to break a fall.

So, what do you do? What is the way to — how do you — how do you teach a machine to walk?

ROBERT PLAYTER: You have to you have to build them. You have to experiment with them. You have to push them. You have to kick them and see how they respond. Rather than try to build a response to stepping on a rock or stepping on ice, what try to build is a fundamental sort of core concept of balance and how to behave in — in the gravitational field.

MILES O’BRIEN: Boston Dynamics is now developing at a two-legged robot called PETMAN for the Army.

And, in Florida, at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, they’re working on some legs with a keen sense of balance that may one day be connected to Robonaut.

But, to get to this point, well, let’s just say it’s been a long, slow, stroll.

MARVIN MINSKY: What most people today are doing is saying, first, let’s get the robot so that it can do the simple things, and then we will make it do the harder ones. I think we should just turn it opposite.

MILES O’BRIEN: While others try to solve the ambulation equation, at MIT’s Media Lab, Cynthia Breazeal is focused on this question:

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab: Should it be a human device? How humanlike should it be? What do we even mean when we say humanlike?

ROBOT VOICE: My name’s Nexi. What’s your name?

MILES O’BRIEN: Nexi is just the latest robot in her menagerie that Breazeal has programmed to engender trust by bridging the gap between machine and mankind with expressions, nonverbal communication, body language, if you will.

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: So things like when I finish speaking and I look at you, that’s a very implicit prompt that now I’m expecting you to respond.

MILES O’BRIEN: And this is when the kids go wild, right?

Breazeal is also fascinated with ways to make robots a better learning tool for children. The more expressive and empathetic and, frankly, cute the face is, the better.

Now, here is a face anybody could love. Looking at Leonardo, it is easy to forget what is behind him.

SHERRY TURKLE, author, “Alone Together”: Here are my — all my little robots.

MILES O’BRIEN: So these are robots you like?

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes. Well, you know, I’m obsessed with robots.


Sherry Turkle is a colleague of Breazeal’s at MIT. Her latest book is “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.” She says humanoid robot builders are leading us down a slippery slope.

SHERRY TURKLE: The moment you make a robot in human form, and the moment it can make eye contact, track your motion and gesture toward you, you’re kind of toast, because you believe that there is somebody home, in other words, a consciousness, even potentially something with feeling and that is like you.

MILES O’BRIEN: But it isn’t, of course. Turkle worries about another paradox: Machines that act like humans can dehumanize the real thing.

SHERRY TURKLE: And a lot of the fantasies about nanny-bots and elder-care-bots are really about being company, being companions for people who, quite frankly, we think sometimes we don’t have time for. And, there, I think we get into a lot of trouble, because, you know, why are we doing this?

MILES O’BRIEN: So, this is love’s labor lost?

SHERRY TURKLE: Love’s labor lost. It diminishes us. It diminishes us as people.

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: Now, I — I have faith that people are actually pretty savvy about relationships. And the relationship I have with various people, whether it’s my children or my husband or my pets, these are all of very, very different kinds of relationships. The relationship I have with pets is a very different kind of relationship. I think people are pretty savvy.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, when am I going to get my robot butler? In Japan, they are fixated on the idea, and they have built some robots that appear to be closer to the Holy Grail than they really are.

But the makers of BigDog say the pieces are finally coming together: intelligence, expression, dexterity, and mobility.

So, we are in the post-novelty stage?

ROBERT PLAYTER: I think so. Well, in fact, really in the last decade, robots have become real.

MILES O’BRIEN: The proof is in the silicon astronaut, I suppose.

In a sense, this is nothing new for NASA. The space agency has been sending robots of another kind to other worlds for decades. The next one to launch to Mars is the size of a Mini Cooper.

Of course, Robert Playter was quick to remind me, the wheels of one of the Martian Rovers, Spirit, had been mired in a sand trap for months.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Now, maybe we can build a robot that can’t get stuck.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, the first footprints on Mars might in fact be deposited by a bipedal robot?

ROBERT PLAYTER: It might be.

MILES O’BRIEN: I suppose that would be one small step for robot, one giant leap for robotkind.