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CyberDecade as seen on The Frontiers Decade

q Do you believe robots will be able to do normal, everyday tasks, such as teaching a class, or cleaning houses? Will they do this soon - for example, when I'm still in school (I'm in 6th grade now)?

A I don't think you will see robots teaching a class anytime soon. A number of companies are working on robots for cleaning houses. It is technically possible right now; handling the fact that furniture may be moved from day to day so the robot needs to be clever about using landmarks like "next to the couch" in order to navigate, since the landmarks may change! The robots can also make guesses about what needs to be thrown out (e.g., scraps of paper or a blown in leaf on the floor), versus what needs to be moved but not discarded (e.g., a pair of underwear), but these guesses are not yet perfect. The big challenge is that these robots are still too large to be practical, and too expensive to be attractive to consumers. Both these situations will slowly improve until some company's product "catches on", and then, as with VCRs, there will be rapid improvements in performance and price. Your question is when...I think you'll still be cleaning your own apartment in college, but your children won't when they get to college.
Rodney Brooks
Natural Born Robots, November 1999

q As the head of a company that's doing ground-breaking work, what do you see in the future of robotics and artificial intelligence?

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 example: 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.
Helen Greiner
Natural Born Robots, November 1999

q Will robots ever be intelligent enough to hold a real conversation with people, or think on their own like we do?

A Yes, I believe that robots will be able to converse with humans. They will not have the same topics to discuss as people do, nor the same world view or opinions, but they'll be able to interact, exchange information, and even "converse". As for thinking on their own, robots already do that now. Any autonomous system thinks on its own. It's just that currently our systems don't yet think about or do very complicated things, but that is not the same as not thinking at all.
Maja Mataric
Natural Born Robots, November 1999

q How fast can your robot tuna swim? Is it as fast as a real tuna?

A The robot tuna can swim 2.4 knots (1.2 meters per second) or approximately 0.6 body lengths per second. This top speed is limited by the capacity of the hydraulic system which moves the fish tail. Real tunas can probably swim circles around the robot since they routinely cruise at 1-2 body lengths per second and burst to 10-20 lengths per second depending on their size. Actual speeds of real tunas the size of the robot tuna are not precisely known as there are no captive animals of that size (2.4 meters) that can be studied.
Jamie Anderson
Natural Born Robots, November 1999

q I think it would be neat if a robot with feelings could be a companion to people who are shut-ins or lonely -- singing to them and providing company. Do you think this is possible?

A Absolutely, yes. In fact, this is a great way for robots to help provide companionship while still letting people feel like they are in control of their lives -- often when you give the elderly a full-time caregiver, they feel like they are losing autonomy, and so a robot can act like a very good companion. Singing and playing games should be no problem for a robot. Playing games will especially benefit from advances in computer vision that are taking place every day now. I expect card-playing robots are just around the corner now. Here at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, there is even a project called NurseBot in which Sebastian Thrun and his colleagues are designing just this -- a tall, moving, entertaining robot that can keep someone company in their own home. You can learn more about this project by going to the web page:
Illah Nourbakhsh
Natural Born Robots, November 1999

q With what we're learning from about making robots walk, is it possible that robotic legs could be made for people who are injured or were born with out the ability to walk?

A Yes, that is one exciting application that could result from studying the control of balance using biped robots. Two different approaches are possible. One approach would be to use prosthetic replacement limbs or exo-skeletons (robotic structures surrounding the individual's own legs) powered by electric motors or some other kind of actuators as the legs to be controlled. A second approach for individuals with spinal cord injuries would be to use functional electrical stimulation. Here, the individual's own leg muscles are stimulated electrically to move the individual's own legs, with no mechanical robotic legs needed. In either case a computer could use feedback from balance sensors and foot force sensors, just like Toddler, to make decisions about the detailed motions of the legs required to achieve successful balance and walking. These approaches are quite possible, although a number of significant problems need to be solved before such systems become available.
Tom Miller
Robots Alive!, April 1997


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