Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science
scientists from previous shows
cool careers in science
ask the scientists

Photo of Helen Greiner Helen Greiner as seen on Natural Born Robots: Robots Have Feelings, Too

Click on Helen's photo to read a brief bio.

q As the head of a company that's doing ground-breaking work, what do you see in the future of robotics and AI? (Question sent by several viewers)

A This is a great time for the field of robotics. Robots are finally moving out of the labs and into the real world. We have developed a robot that can get around in urban terrain -- going up stairs and over curbs. These robots are designed for law enforcement use. We have also made a robot that goes into oil wells completely on its own.

Falling computer chip and sensor prices are making it feasible to put robotic technology into toys. Fifteen years ago such advanced technology would only have been seen in research labs. Such toys will be in the stores in 2001!

We are currently giving the robots more capabilities than ever. Robots can see with camera systems, navigate through buildings, and respond to interactions with humans. Robotics has the power to change our world in some fundamental positive ways. Here are a couple of my favorite examples:

There are an estimated 100 million land mines buried around the world. Using manual methods the cost of removing each mine can be as much as $500 to $1000 -- far too high for poor countries where most of the mines are buried. We believe that inexpensive robots can be developed to perform this task. Successful robot deminers can reduce the injuries and loss of life caused by exploding mines that happen on an hourly basis around the world and return huge tracts of land to productive use.

Pesticides and herbicides have helped to improve farm productivity around the world. But as bugs and weeds develop resistance to these substances increasing amounts must be used and more toxins enter our environment. We envision agri-bots, robots that "live" in farmer's fields. These robots constantly search for and remove plants and insects that do not belong. Success in building such robots will mean the virtual elimination of pesticides and herbicides -- all farms can become organic farms.

However, there is still a lot of work left to do. We do not yet have robots that can make your bed, do your homework, or perform many feats of reasoning that even toddlers take for granted. So consider entering this field and taking on these challenges.

q What kind of people do you hire at your company to develop the robots of the future? What skills do you look for? Is graduate studies in robotics a prerequisite for employment? (Questions sent by several viewers)

A One good indicator of a good fit with ISR is that robotics is a passion and hobby, not just a job. Having built a robot before is a useful indication that the person knows what is involved. Creativity and desire to make a lasting impact on the world are key traits in many of our employees. We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer scientists, graphic artists, physicists, and mathematicians on staff. Many of our engineers have graduate degrees, but it is not a prerequisite.

q Does the robot "baby" react to its environment or to humans? For example, if it's in a cold room will it cry? If you sing to it, will it smile or coo? (Question sent by Lisa)

A The baby, Bit, has sensors on it and it is programmed to react to readings on those sensors. For example, one sensor on the doll is a light sensor (CDS cell). Patterns in activation that occur when it is being tickled are detected by a real-time process on Bit's computer chip.

The engineers who developed Bit programmed a sophisticated system of simulated emotions (such as happiness, excitement, and anger) that change depending on his sensors and the time. Bit's parent can keep him happy by nurturing him. However, if Bit is not played with, fed, or given a nap when needed, he will start to get cranky and let its parent know by frowning and crying.

Bit does not currently cry if the room gets cold. If we wanted to add this behavior, we would add a temperature sensor and hook it up to the onboard microprocessor. Coldness would be one more parameter that feeds into its simulated emotions (possibly reducing happiness). We would add a microphone to detect singing although it would take more processing than we have onboard currently to detect that a sound was a song.

q What specific uses or commercial applications might there be in the future for the baby robot? (Question sent by several viewers)

A The robot baby was a prototype to prove a concept - which it did quite well. We wanted to show that adding simulated emotions to a robot would stimulate interesting interactions and play patterns. We are currently working with Hasbro to incorporate this type of technology into the next generation toys and games. I cannot discuss specifics because the toys are bound by a confidentiality agreement, but I can say that nothing like them exists on the market and they are way cool!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.