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ROBOTS ALIVE!: Almost Human

Building a robot that will mimic a human being is the ambitious goal of Rodney Brooks, MIT professor and artificial intelligence guru. For two years, Brooks has been working on Cog, a robot capable of learning from its experiences, the way people do. If Brooks is successful, Cog will become the most advanced robot in existence. Ultimately, Brooks envisions creating robots that can operate in the world like human beings and even outperform them.

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Activity: Designing Robots




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Inventing the Future (Show 701): "Virtually Real"


"The motivation behind creating Cog," according to researchers in the Cog Shop at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, is the hypothesis that "humanoid intelligence requires humanoid interactions with the world."

In other words, the researchers behind Cog are trying to duplicate the human form and its functions. To do this, they draw on resources from a variety of fields, from developmental psychology to functional morphology. The researchers are studying not only what it means to act human, but also to look human. Robotic Dog

An interesting aspect of their research (aside from all the cool science that is going on behind designing, building and debugging their various systems) is the humanoid appearance of Cog.

Just as nature seems to focus on specific forms to fill certain niches, Cog's creators also focus on a form that has proven itself in a niche in the real world. Does it follow that for robots to perform specific jobs they must have forms that are a reflection of organisms that fill a niche similar to that job?

In the making of Star Wars, George Lucas and the designers at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) must have had this idea in mind when they developed many of their robots. From human-like C-3P0 to the mouse-like robots scurrying around in the ships of the Imperial Fleet, the robots of Star Wars could be argued to have forms that fit their functions. An Internet search turns up many researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics who are taking a similar tactic and designing a menagerie of robots with forms that mimic real-world animals.


Design robots for specific tasks with forms that fit their functions.

In this activity you will design and draw a robot that will search out deposits of underground minerals. Its form must fit its function. Your design should include details of the sensory and motor functions of the robot, as well as reflect the form of an organism that functions in a similar manner in the real world. Follow the steps listed here to develop and draw the robot. Work in small groups or teams.


1. Brainstorm.
First identify what jobs this robot must perform to complete the mining task (function). Then brainstorm the design, including features you want to include (form). For example, a mining robot will have to dig; it will have to find and bring back a small sample; it will have to remember where it found the sample. List the jobs and corresponding design features on the board.

2. Identify analogous organisms.
Next to the jobs you've listed on the board, identify organisms with a form that might fit the task.

3. Draw your robot.
Use the notes on the board to design your robot. Your drawing may be a hybrid of the organisms listed or it may be totally different from the suggestions. Remember, however, that your drawing must reflect the mechanical nature of the parts that will make up your robot. ("Nailbot," an example below, is a robot given the task of hammering nails into inaccessible places.)

4. Label your robot.
Label the major features and parts of your robot and briefly describe how they function.

  1. Do you think Rodney Brooks will achieve his goal of creating a robot capable of doing more than humans? Will this ultimate robot be created in a human likeness?

  2. The scientists at the Cog Shop believe that to better interact with a human and to get humans to react "easily" and "naturally" around Cog, Cog needs to be as human-looking in its form and actions as possible. Do you agree or disagree with this assumption?

  3. What kinds of sensors are available now to help you build the robot you have designed? A good place to start is the Cog Shop at MIT (


  1. Search the Internet for artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics projects to see what designs researchers are using and building. See Related Sites for a listing of some sites to get started. You will probably want to narrow your search, as entering the word "robot" on a search engine will give you thousands of sites!

  2. Watch the Star Wars movies and note all the robots you can. Do their forms fit their functions?

  3. Compare HAL 9000 as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the computer technology that exists today. What could HAL do that computers cannot yet do (for example, read lips)?
Rama series of books, includes many robots with forms based on animals. He also suggests an interesting alternative: bioengineered organisms that perform specific tasks. Read the series and discuss the pros and cons of robots versus bioengineered organisms.

  • Build your own insect-like robot! Get information on a small, six-legged, inexpensive robot called Stiquito from the Computer Science Department, Indiana University, 215 Lindley Hall, Bloomington, IN 47405. Or go to for information on the colonies of Stiquito robots being used today.

CREDIT: This activity was developed by Jamie Larsen, a science educator and consultant in Sedona, Arizona.


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