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NOVA ScienceNOW

A Challenge for Humanoid Robots

  • Posted 11.14.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

When people think of the future, they often think of robots. But before robots can be on hand to do our laundry or even rush into burning buildings, roboticists have to solve a major engineering problem: how to make a machine walk on two legs without falling over. To find out, David Pogue meets scientists building all kinds of bipedal machines – from autonomous soccer-playing robots to robotic suits that can be worn by humans.

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Transcript

What Will the Future Be Like?

PBS Airdate: November 14, 2012

DAVID POGUE: Technology is on the rise. And who knows how far it will go?

If my goggles don't deceive me, that's you sitting across from me.

HENRY FUCHS (University of North Carolina): Ah!

DAVID POGUE: I'm David Pogue, and on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW,…

Oh wow!

…I'm peering into the future to find out…

He walks!

…if robots can learn how to walk, will they become our constant companions?

DENNIS HONG (Virginia Tech): My dream is to have robots living with us in our home.

DAVID POGUE: Could wearable robots give us super human strength…

RUSS ANGOLD (Ekso Bionics): I can actually put my weight on the structure, while you are wearing it, and you don't feel it.

DAVID POGUE: …and transform our lives?

RODNEY BROOKS (Rethink Robotics): The boundary between a person and robots is already starting to change.

DAVID POGUE: And…

My god! I can control this thing with my mind!

Is it possible for a machine to read your mind…

I am a superpower!

…and reveal your innermost secrets?

The computer is correct.

MARCEL JUST (Carnegie Mellon University): What if all of our thoughts were public? Lying would go away. It's sort of like a mental nudist colony.

DAVID POGUE: Where is all this leading us?

Dominobots!

I'm exploring the good,…

So now you can walk. That's mind-blowing!

…the bad,…

SHERRY TURKLE (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Not every advance is progress. Not every new thing is better for us humanly.

DAVID POGUE: …and the not so pretty side of technology, all to find out…

Whoa, that's scary!

What Will the Future be Like?

And he gave me a dirty look!

Up next on NOVA scienceNOW!

When we think about the future, one of the first things that comes to mind is the robot, like those droids in Star Wars, that tirelessly fulfill our every need. But how close are we to the sci-fi dream of robots that seamlessly fit into our world? Humanoid robots that look and act like us?

ROBOT BARTENDER: Your second round, sir.

DAVID POGUE: Here at Virginia Tech, roboticist Dennis Hong believes that day will come, only when robots master an incredibly complex skill, something that's very difficult for them to learn, but comes naturally to us: walking.

Oh, man.

DENNIS HONG: Nobody is controlling anything. And if you look at his head you can see that he's looking around, so he's trying to figure out where he is in the soccer field.

DAVID POGUE: He may be short, he may be skinny, but he walks and can even kick a soccer ball.

DENNIS HONG: Goal!

DAVID POGUE: Wouldn't it be simpler to build something with treads, like on a tractor or something?

DENNIS HONG: That's a very good question. Some people say we can do things with wheels.

DAVID POGUE: That's right.

DENNIS HONG: But my dream is to have robots living with us in our homes.

DAVID POGUE: And to do that they need to climb stairs, open doors, take out the trash and clean up the dishes.

DENNIS HONG: If you want to have these types of robots living with us, in an environment designed for humans, then I say that the robot has to be the shape of a human being.

DAVID POGUE: So, you're acknowledging that it's a much more difficult task to make a humanoid robot that walks, but you're saying the payoff will one day be worth it?

DENNIS HONG: Absolutely.

DAVID POGUE: Dennis hopes, in the future, humanoid robots won't just do the dishes, they'll do jobs that are risky for us to do.

DENNIS HONG: Dirty, dangerous tasks…

DAVID POGUE: Like cleaning up after a chemical plant leak, helping people out of harm's way, or fighting fires.

DENNIS HONG: Humanoid robots are really great for those kind of things—real, useful tasks that can actually save people's lives.

DAVID POGUE: How do you transform metal, motors and microchips into a machine that can walk on two legs?

All right, so Dennis, this is your "home robot construction kit?"

DENNIS HONG: This is the robot cooking show, as a matter of fact.

DAVID POGUE: Cooking show?

DENNIS HONG: You'll be making one of these.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, wow.

DENNIS HONG: This is called "Darwin O.P."

DAVID POGUE: Darwin is a pint-sized humanoid robot that Dennis created back in 2004, a research platform he uses to find out what it takes for a robot to walk on its own two feet.

DENNIS HONG: This is all the parts you need, and you are going to put it together today.

DAVID POGUE: Yeah, right.

DENNIS HONG: Are you ready?

DAVID POGUE: No.

This is not Legos, let me tell you. We'll start out with the M4.

To create Darwin, Dennis took his clues from nature. Number one, he needs to see. As you walk, you use your eyes to assess your environment. Darwin sees the world through this tiny webcam.

DENNIS HONG: Actually, the eyes, the big ones, are just fake. The nose is actually the camera.

DAVID POGUE: So your saying that all this is just cosmetic?

DENNIS HONG: Those are not the eyes.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, you're such a…

DENNIS HONG: We cheated.

DAVID POGUE: Number two, he needs a sense of balance. As you shift your weight from one foot to the other, your inner ear is able to sense the change in your position and keep you from falling. Darwin gets this ability from a sensor in this circuit board.

DENNIS HONG: These two small things, these are the balance sensors. So it knows its orientation and direction.

DAVID POGUE: Ah, that seems to want to fit right here.

DENNIS HONG: You're good at this. Have you done this before?

DAVID POGUE: Thousands of times.

Even if Darwin can see and balance he still can't move without muscles and joints. Number three: your muscles are your body's engine, you can't move without them. Darwin moves with the help of actuators.

DENNIS HONG: For each moving joint we have one of these actuators that is basically an electric motor.

DAVID POGUE: A motor that converts electrical energy into motion, and that gives Darwin the ability to move.

All right.

DENNIS HONG: He's done.

DAVID POGUE: We have arm!

DENNIS HONG: Yay!

DAVID POGUE: As for his sense of touch, he gets it from these four little sensors on the bottom of his feet.

Hours later, I'm finally finished.

Tell me that's the last step.

DENNIS HONG: You're almost done. Now you need to attach the arm to the rest of the body, and that's the last step.

Hello, I'm Darwin.

DAVID POGUE: He's adorable. I can already feel him seeking world domination and wishing his screws were done better.

Even though my robot's fully loaded, he can't walk yet, because he still needs a brain. And that's where roboticist Dan Lee comes in.

DAN LEE: So, the first thing we're going to show you is how the robot uses its vestibular sense, which is its sense of balance.

DAVID POGUE: "Vestibular" from the word "vestibule," which is one of the things in our ears.

DAN LEE (University of Pennsylvania): Exactly; inside your inner ear. And so, without using its vestibular sense, what would happen if we pushed the robot?

DAVID POGUE: All right.

DAN LEE: It just will fall over and then get back up.

DAVID POGUE: Wow. That's pretty cool, right there.

DAN LEE: So, go ahead. Exactly.

DAVID POGUE: Wow!

DAN LEE: So, now, what we've done, we've trained this robot using something called reinforcement learning. So, exactly what you just did, we kept pushing the robot over and over, and it was now able to figure out that every time it fell down it was kind of a form of punishment.

DAVID POGUE: When Darwin falls, his software gets an electronic signal that basically says, "This is bad." After being bullied around hundreds of times, he finally learns it's better to do this.

Fall over. Oh no!

So, the hundreds of different reps are so that it can learn from this angle and this angle and this hard and this hard and this hard.

DAN LEE: Exactly.

DAVID POGUE: I see.

Dan's even teaching his robots to learn through imitation.

(Singing) We will, we will rock you.

This camera detects my body's movement and sends that information to Darwin's software, which quickly translates it into a copycat movement of his own.

You'd think, with all this sophisticated software, Darwin would be able to keep up with me.

Look forward. Oh, so sorry.

But he can't.

DENNIS HONG: Just trying to make a robot walk steadily is ridiculously difficult. I won't say impossible, because I don't like that word, but it's a very difficult challenge.

THURMON LOCKHART (Virginia Tech): All right, so, David,…

DAVID POGUE: Yet, we're masters at it.

THURMON LOCKHART: Come on in.

DAVID POGUE: Wow. What are you doing here?

And engineer Thurmon Lockhart is trying to figure out why. He's built this strange looking device to analyze, not just how we walk, but how we avoid falling.

And I'm about to try it out.

But first, I need to suit up.

Thurmon's outfit is filled with sensors that measure how far, how fast and in which direction I move.

I can't decide if I feel more like a superhero or a Broadway dancer.

THURMON LOCKHART: Both.

And you're going to have to wear a headband, as well.

DAVID POGUE: This is just an elaborate prank to humiliate me on television, isn't it?

The little white balls are part of an optical motion capture system that instantly creates a stick figure of me.

(Singing) Well you can tell from the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man, no time to talk.

Next, I'm put in a harness, because it's time to take a stroll through Thurmon's obstacle course.

THURMON LOCKHART: That's good.

DAVID POGUE: After walking back and forth several times, suddenly…

THURMON LOCKHART: Oh, good.

DAVID POGUE: What the hell?

THURMON LOCKHART: Did you feel that a little bit?

DAVID POGUE: Did I feel it? You made the earth shake under my feet.

But check out what happens when I do this a second time.

I handle the jolt much better. My body and brain have already integrated thousands of pieces of information in a flash.

THURMON LOCKHART: You ready?

DAVID POGUE: That's because we have the exceptional ability to adapt to sudden changes in our environment.

Walking is a skill that took millions of years for us to develop. And, when you think about it, it still takes each of us about year to go from floppy, to crawling, to waddling and, finally, mustering the skills and courage to walk on our own two feet.

And we never stop learning how to adapt to the many obstacles we confront every day.

So walking is not just more complex than I thought, it's much more complex than I thought. And if you wanted to design a robot that could walk as well as a person, I mean, this would be fantastically complicated software. I mean, it would have to be doing billions of calculations with every step.

THURMON LOCKHART: It is amazing that we are able to do it almost innately and without really even thinking about it.

DAVID POGUE: Dennis Hong hopes that in the future, his robots will be able to master this extraordinary human skill. And they're learning how to do it one kick at a time.

DAVID POGUE and DENNIS HONG: Score!

DAVID POGUE: Every year, hundreds of teams from around the world compete at RoboCup Soccer, a competition designed to foster research in robotics and artificial intelligence.

DENNIS HONG: To make a autonomous soccer-playing robot, you really need to solve all the grand challenges, the really difficult problems in robotics. Robot vision, autonomous behavior, bipedal walking—and running, in the future. All of these need to be solved to truly build a soccer-playing robot.

DAVID POGUE: But what comes naturally to us,…

DAVID POGUE and DENNIS HONG: Whoa...

DAVID POGUE: …comes a lot harder for Dennis's robots.

Dominobots!

You think you're pretty good at soccer? I'm better. I can do this. Whoa, that's scary. He got right back up, and he gave me a dirty look!

Despite his robot's shortcomings, Dennis is optimistic.

DENNIS HONG: By the year 2050, we want to have these type of full-size humanoid robots play soccer against the human World Cup champions and win.

DAVID POGUE: You're going to have robots playing humans and you expect them to win?

DENNIS HONG: Yup.

DAVID POGUE: Here. Twenty bucks. There you go.

While this may sound like a sci-fi fantasy, many experts believe humanoid robots could progress a lot faster than we think. Sophisticated robots are already building our cars. Pretty soon they could be serving us drinks and even doing the laundry.

In Japan, where the aging population is growing faster than in any other country, researchers are developing robots to care for the elderly, from bathing them, to moving them.

And one day they may even babysit our kids, a job that has always required a human touch.

Sherry Turkle, a researcher at M.I.T., who's written several books about the effects of technology on humans, is concerned about our future relationship with robots.

SHERRY TURKLE: It's too easy to look at them and say, "Oh, they're not there yet." Well, they will get to something very powerful that we will want to hang out with. And then you have to say, "Well, where will we have gotten to? Why is that something that we want to develop?"

DAVID POGUE: And in the future, robots won't just be taking care of our kids, they may become a part of us, literally merging with the human body and transforming both of us into something in-between.

Wow.

At Ekso Bionics, they're developing a robot that could restore our ability to walk.

RUSS ANGOLD: This is our exoskeleton. So, you can see it's a robot that can walk and move without somebody in it. And this one's designed for paraplegics, to get them up and walking again.

DAVID POGUE: People like Amanda Boxtel.

You're breaking a few speed limits there.

In her 20s, Amanda was injured in a skiing accident.

AMANDA BOXTEL: I lost all sensation and movement from my pelvis down. There's nothing.

DAVID POGUE: So, crutches, no good?

AMANDA BOXTEL: No. I mean, I can't move my legs.

DAVID POGUE: But in the future, that could change, with the help of a wearable robot.

Wow, is it standing you up now?

AMANDA BOXTEL: Yeah, I couldn't do that on my own.

DAVID POGUE: Wow. That's mind-blowing. So now you can stand and you can walk?

AMANDA BOXTEL: Yes.

DAVID POGUE: This I've got to see.

AMANDA BOXTEL: Let's do it.

The exoskeleton is intelligent enough that it senses my center of gravity and, also, when I shift my weight over to a foot, then it triggers another step.

RUSS ANGOLD: So Amanda shifts her body like you or I would to take a step, and sensors pick up that intent.

DAVID POGUE: That sends a message to this onboard computer, which tells the exoskeleton it's time to take another step. Right now, the exoskeleton works only on flat surfaces, but one day, these researchers hope Amanda will be able to use it anywhere, even walking up stairs.

And they aren't just helping people like Amanda, they may help average Joe's like me, with this.

RUSS ANGOLD: So, David, here we have the HULC exoskeleton.

DAVID POGUE: The HULC is designed to help people carry heavy loads, and it would come in really handy if you happen to be a firefighter.

How much weight do these guys have to lug?

DAVE (Ekso Bionics): All right, pants: 10 pounds.

DAVID POGUE: Boots.

RUSS ANGOLD: Two pounds.

DAVE: Let's go to field jacket here. That's another eight pounds.

DAVID POGUE: All right. Wow.

DAVE: Breathing apparatus: 30 pounds.

DAVID POGUE: Whoa.

DAVE: You can't fight a fire without hoses.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, jeez.

DAVE: That's 50 pounds of hoses.

DAVID POGUE: I've got a hundred pounds of equipment on me.

RUSS ANGOLD: Is it heavy?

DAVID POGUE: Is it heavy? It's a hundred pounds!

DAVE: Your buddies up on the third floor of the building are going to need some…

DAVID POGUE: No, no, no.

DAVE: …some more air.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, jeez, wait a minute, wait a minute. No firefighter would go in like this, come on.

RUSS ANGOLD: They do what it takes.

DAVID POGUE: Okay, I'm going to break your scale. I hope you don't mind.

RUSS ANGOLD: You're carrying an extra 130 pounds of weight.

DAVID POGUE: I'm carrying 130 pounds, and I'm supposed to put a fire out.

RUSS ANGOLD: That's right.

DAVID POGUE: Wow, all right, so you've made your point. This is unbearable.

And here's where the HULC comes in.

RUSS ANGOLD: This structure actually surrounds your body. The idea is to take all the weight you put on it, all the way down the ground, completely bypassing you.

All that weight that you put on that external skeleton actually bypasses the user that's inside, in taking that weight to the ground. So they actually don't feel the weight that they are carrying.

DAVID POGUE: Not only that, the HULC is also designed to increase your strength.

RUSS ANGOLD: And what I'm going to do is turn it on. Now you can actually feel a little bit of power.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, I see, it's picking itself up.

RUSS ANGOLD: It's picking itself up.

DAVID POGUE: So this is going to be my thigh, and when my thigh moves, that triggers it to start helping me?

RUSS ANGOLD: Actually, this is at our very lowest setting.

DAVID POGUE: Can you turn it to the highest setting, let me see what happens.

RUSS ANGOLD: Now try that.

DAVID POGUE: Whoa! Hey that works.

Now, I put on the HULC and get loaded up again.

DAVE: Ready for the hoses?

DAVID POGUE: Yeah. This is what killed me before. Go ahead and put on the hoses, Dave.

These are different hoses.

RUSS ANGOLD: Same hoses.

DAVID POGUE: That's amazing. I feel nothing. It's like, you might as well put it on the roof of my house. It doesn't affect me at all.

RUSS ANGOLD: That's the idea. I can actually put my weight on the structure, while you're wearing it, and you don't feel it.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, dude, that's amazing.

RUSS ANGOLD: So, all that weight bypasses you, comes down that torso, down these titanium legs, all the way into the ground. So you actually don't feel that weight.

DAVID POGUE: Now should I try walking?

RUSS ANGOLD: Yeah, give it a try.

DAVID POGUE: It takes some getting used to.

There are fractions of a second when I suddenly feel really heavy and then the robot says, "Oh, here, I can help you, pal," and takes some of the weight off.

RUSS ANGOLD: And takes it over, yup.

DAVID POGUE: Wow.

Don't worry, ma'am, I'll save you. That's what I'm here for, ma'am. Give me your hand.

David Pogue is Backdraft.

RODNEY BROOKS (Rethink Robotics): The boundary between a person and a robot is already starting to change. Lots of people have mechanical hips, and then people have electronic interfaces to their, their cochlea. We are going to merge with our machines more and more. We're already merging with our machines.

DAVID POGUE: In the future, will wearable robots like this give almost anyone a leg up?

No one looking at us would ever know that you're a paraplegic and I'm a skinny nerd.

AMANDA BOXTEL: Yeah.

DAVID POGUE: It's hard to imagine just how much robots may change our world.

One of the first known
humanoid robots
was invented by…

Leonardo da Vinci!

Made from a suit of armor packed
with springs, gears, and pulleys,

It could reportedly sit, stand, walk,
and raise its arms.

The mechanical knight
may not have launched
a Renaissance Robo-Revolution…

…but a modern version
was recently reconstructed.

So watch out.

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What Will the Future Be Like?

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Image

(robot)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Participants

Russ Angold
Ekso Bionics
Rodney Brooks
Massachusetts Institute of Technology people.csail.mit.edu/brooks/
Dennis Hong
Virginia Tech
Dan Lee
University of Pennsylvania
Thurmon Lockhart
Virginia Tech
Sherry Turkle
MIT

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