Social Robots

  • Posted 02.23.11
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Robots already build our cars and vacuum our floors. Will they one day be our companions, too? Engineers are designing robots with the social smarts to understand human feelings, learn from human teachers, carry on conversations, and even make jokes. But is a future full of robotic companions a delightful dream—or a lonely nightmare?

Running Time: 11:37


What's The Next Big Thing?

PBS Airdate: February 23, 2011

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: (Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History): Hi, I'm Neil deGrasse Tyson, your host of NOVA scienceNOW, where this season we're asking six big questions. On this episode, What Is The Next Big Thing?


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: They can be cute,...

MAYA CAKMAK: Simon, can you hear me?

SIMON THE ROBOT: Loud and clear.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: ...friendly...

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: Chad, let's chat.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: ...and even convenient.

CHARLES KEMP (Georgia Institute of Technology): Robots have a lot of potential to enhance somebody's life.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: They're social robots,...

HUMAN ZENO: Hello, Zeno.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: ...specially designed, so we will like them.

CHAD COHEN: When he turns and looks at you, you feel it!

WOMAN: He's much better looking than I thought!

SHERRY TURKLE (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): We feel as though there's somebody home, but, in fact, there's nobody home.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Could machines that fit in with humans become dangerous?

DAVID HANSON (Hanson Robotics): As soon as you have true, deep intelligence in a machine, it will be very difficult to contain.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And could the next big thing be "the big one,"...

WOMAN'S VOICE (Haitian Earthquake Survivor): The world is coming to an end.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. These researchers saw it coming, but how accurate was their forecast?

THOMAS H. JORDAN (Southern California Earthquake Center): We're playing a statistical game, and, frankly, nature has the odds.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And could California be next?

Also, are you in a jam? Could your traffic prayers be answered, by this?

ZIYA TONG (Correspondent): Let's go for a cruise!

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Not only is it tiny, you won't have to worry about this happening. These little cars sense danger and stop on their own. Are automated cars about to take away your license to drive?

CHRISTOPHER BORRONI-BIRD (General Motors): It will come and pick me up.

ZIYA TONG: This is so much cooler than valet. I love it.


ROBOT: ...and more, on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW!

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: When we imagine the future and high-tech solutions to all our problems, one of the first things that comes to mind is the robot: a computer-driven machine that tirelessly fulfills our every need. But some engineers imagine a day when robots will be much more than our assistants.

ROBOT: Hey, Neil, what are you doing?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I'm going to work.


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: They'll also be our friends.

Correspondent Chad Cohen found some robots being built, not just to work for us, but to care about our feelings and make us care about them.

ROBOT: Hey, Neil, don't forget your briefcase.



CHAD COHEN: For me, this is the ultimate in robots: C3PO, the loyal protocol droid in Star Wars. R2D2 may tug at our heartstrings, but a robot that looks and acts human and can perform our tasks, that's something.

C3PO (Star Wars/Film Clip): Now, don't you forget this.

CHAD COHEN: That's something. And today, a revolution is booting up around the world, to build robots just like us.

Engineers, scientists, even artists are developing robots to take over what have forever been uniquely human tasks. Like Herb, the robot butler; and Snackbot...

SNACKBOT ROBOT: I have your order here.

CHAD COHEN: ...the android delivery boy; and Nannybot, the robot babysitter.

In Japan, where the aging population is growing faster than in any other country, researchers are developing robots to care for the elderly. Robots like these seem destined to become part of our everyday life, if can we make them act less like machines and more like us.


MAYA CAKMAK: Simon, can you hear me?

SIMON THE ROBOT: Loud and clear. Can you hear me?

CHAD COHEN: Here at the Georgia Institute of Technology, roboticists Andrea Thomaz and her graduate students...

MAYA CAKMAK Simon, take this.

CHAD COHEN: ...are striving to create a kinder, gentler-looking robot, one with a touch of grace...

SIMON THE ROBOT: Let me take a closer look.

CHAD COHEN: ...and a face that's easy to love.

ANDREA THOMAZ (Georgia Institute of Technology): We wanted the robot to have a friendly, childlike look, so that people are not afraid to interact with it.

RODNEY BROOKS (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): One of the things that robots can do is give social cues of what their intent is. So a humanoid robot looking over where it's about to reach, that gives a person a good feeling that they know what the robot is going to do.

MAYA CAKMAK: Yes, Simon, that's correct. You have learned a task.

CHAD COHEN: If we are comfortable with Simon, the theory goes, it will be easier for us to welcome and incorporate him into our lives.

SIMON THE ROBOT: That was fun.

CHAD COHEN: Roboticist David Hanson agrees. But he's not just making robots that look and act friendly, at his home-slash-laboratory outside of Dallas, he's humanizing machines on a whole new level.


Oh, ho, ho.

DAVID HANSON: I'd like to introduce you to Phil.

CHAD COHEN: That is just...

Hello, Philip.

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: Hi, nice to see you.

CHAD COHEN: That is so bizarre.

This is Philip K. Dick. Well, actually it's a robot David fashioned after his favorite sci-fi author. Dick, who died in 1982, wrote the story that inspired the cult classic Blade Runner, in which robots and humans are indistinguishable.

This resurrected Philip isn't quite there yet. All he can do is move his head. His brain? A mesh of wires connected to a computer.

Hi, Philip. My name is Chad.

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: Hello, Chad. Let's chat.

CHAD COHEN: I live in Washington, D.C. I have two kids.

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: Ah, um, so, I like kids 'cause we can play.

CHAD COHEN: As we chat, Philip's synthetic brain starts humming, building a sort of mental model of me. Facial recognition software analyzes and tracks my face, as speech recognition software transcribes and sends my words to a database for a reply.

Before long we're in deep conversation.

Do you agree with Descartes' "I think therefore I am?" Do you "think?"

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: A lot of humans ask me if I can make choices or if everything I do and say is programmed. The best way I can respond to that is to say that everything humans, animals and robots do is programmed, to a degree.

CHAD COHEN: So, how much of that is coming from what you've programmed it to say?

DAVID HANSON: It's a mix. Some of it's coming from knowledge on the Web, some of it is written.

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: As my technology improves, it is anticipated that I will be able to integrate new words that I hear and learn online and in real time. I may not get everything right, say the wrong thing and sometimes not know what to say, but every day I make progress. Pretty remarkable, huh?


You're a very good looking man.

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: Um, you're starting to over-inflate my ego, but don't let me stop you.

CHAD COHEN: Philip's stunning good looks comes from David's patented formula for synthetic skin. Colleague Bill Hicks demonstrates.

BILL HICKS (HANSON ROBOTICS?): We've come up with a beautiful, unique recipe for simulating human skin. This is a lot like a cooking recipe.

CHAD COHEN: A combination of chemicals and a little bit of color are put into a mold. Several hours later, voila,...


CHAD COHEN: ...Frubber™!

BILL HICKS: We're ready to go.

DAVID HANSON: The Frubber has the right properties, that will allow it to fold and to bunch, to crease and move into these forms that, uh, that we think of as expressions.

CHAD COHEN: David then attaches the skin to tiny motors.

So, little motors inside pull on the Frubber, basically, on the skin?


CHAD COHEN: To get, kind of, like, a suite of human facial features, how many motors do you need?

DAVID HANSON: Um, 28 motors, for all the major muscles...


DAVID HANSON: the face.

So, you can see in the forehead, some of the brow action.

CHAD COHEN: That is just crazy messed up.

I mean, it's amazing, It's amazing to look at. Because you sit there and he's got the facial expressions, and he sits there like he's engaged in the conversation. When he turns and looks at you and locks eyes, you feel it. And he definitely says things that make you empathetic to him in some way. You feel like, "Oh, he's aware."

And that's exactly what some experts worry about. Not that Phillip is aware, but that I'm so easily tricked into believing he is.

SHERRY TURKLE: We're very cheap dates. We have Darwinian buttons, like being looked in the eye or being tracked. Once you have that kind of creature doing that to you, our buttons are pressed, and we feel as though there's somebody home, but, in fact, there's nobody home.

CHAD COHEN: Already, between internet chats and texting, we're constantly interacting with technology. Robots could take this trend one giant step further as they start doing jobs that have always been considered intrinsically human.

SHERRY TURKLE: If you give a nannybot, a babysitting robot, to your child, how are you going to explain why you couldn't find a person? "Not enough people on the globe, we've decided to do a robot."

Or to your mother, "Not enough people, certainly not me; a robot."

DAVID HANSON: I don't buy the idea that we're developing robots so we don't have to take care of our own. I think that there will be unpredictable consequences, not all positive, but, for the most part, what we are developing could be very positive.

CHAD COHEN: Back at Georgia Tech, researchers Wendy Rogers and Charles Kemp couldn't agree more. They're testing robots where they think they'll be needed most, with the older generation.

CHARLIE KEMP: Instead of you having to worry about what time it is and, "Should I be taking medicine," imagine if the robot were just to come up to you and say, "Here. You just need to take this."

MAN: Thank you, that's quite impressive.

WENDY ROGERS (Georgia Institute of Technology): Could you imagine having a robot like this in your home, and, if so, what kind of tasks would you want it to do for you?

WOMAN: Oh, like the Jetsons; I want it to vacuum and answer the phone, answer the door and do all the futuristic stuff.

WOMAN: ...come and clean my house anytime it wants. Love it, teach it to iron. And, in fact, he's much better looking than I thought he'd be.

I have a friend who is looking for a dancing partner? Seriously. Can he come to a party?

SHERRY TURKLE: My problem with sociable robots is that we begin to think about the sociable and lose track of the robots. We're setting ourselves up for disappointment, because these robots will disappoint us if we are looking for human connection. Do we want to make them in such a way that we're going to love them because they will be pretending to love us?

CHAD COHEN: David fears, if we don't humanize robots by bringing them into the human family, we face a frightening future.

Think Terminator—a world in which killer robots turn on their creators and set out to destroy us.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (As the Terminator/The Terminator/Film Clip): Hasta la vista, baby!

CHAD COHEN: Do you think robots will take over the world?

PHILIP K. DICK ROBOT: Jeez, dude. You all got the big questions cooking today. But you're my friend, and I'll remember my friends, and I will be good to you. So don't worry. Even if I evolve into Terminator, I will still be nice to you. I will keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for old time's sake.

CHAD COHEN: I'm comforted, I'm very comforted now. I'm going to be part of his people zoo.

In the future, will people fall in love with robots?

Seems like a lot of songwriters already have...


Victor Lams



We found at least 44 songs about people in love with robots...






























Next big thing: an album in the works?

Maybe not.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Even with all our technology and the inventions that make modern life so much easier than it once was, it takes just one big natural disaster to wipe all that away and remind us that, here on Earth, we're still at the mercy of nature.

We don't know how to stop these natural disasters. Thanks to technology, we're getting better at seeing them coming, but some approaching disasters aren't visible from the sky. Catastrophic earthquakes, capable of wiping out entire cities, are driven by forces deep underground. If only we could peer beneath the surface and see what's coming.

Correspondent Kirk Wolfinger takes us to some tectonic hot spots, where researchers are inventing new tools to try and detect killer quakes before they strike.

KIRK WOLFINGER(Correspondent): This is what Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, looked like, on January 11, 2010.

MAN'S VOICE: Go, go, go!

WOMAN'S VOICE: The world is coming to an end!

KIRK WOLFINGER: And this was the same city, 24 hours later.

JEAN ROBERT JOSEPH (Haitian Earthquake Survivor): Everybody was calling, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!"

KIRK WOLFINGER: The city was flattened by a massive earthquake, measuring 7.0. More than 230,000 people died. A quarter of a million buildings were reduced to rubble.

THOMAS JORDAN: The Haiti earthquake of January 12th is the fifth largest killing earthquake in history.

KIRK WOLFINGER: But it was not unexpected.

ERIC CALAIS: There was a police station there. Can't see anything, and that's because there's nothing left.

KIRK WOLFINGER: But almost two years before the quake, geophysicist Eric Calais saw this coming. Along with his colleagues at the Haitian Bureau of Mines, they actually forecast this earthquake with amazing accuracy.

DIEUSEUL ANGLADE (Haiti Bureau of Mines and Energy): With the University of Purdue, we calculated the magnitude of the, of the earthquake, and we have found 7.2. And we, we knew that this earthquake will be very, very catastrophic.

KIRK WOLFINGER: They did it by measuring Earth's movements along the Enriquillo fault zone. The Enriquillo fault, a giant crack in the Earth's surface, runs the entire length of Haiti.

If you could peer underground, you'd see a complex jumble of jagged fissures where pieces of the Earth's crust rub up against each other. The two sides of the fault drift in opposite directions.

Eric's team set out to measure the speed of the two moving plates. In 2003, they placed six steel pins in key locations on both sides of the fault.

ERIC CALAIS: It's a piece of metal, stainless steel, that we sealed in the top of this building.

KIRK WOLFINGER: On top of each pin, Eric attached a G.P.S. antenna, linked to a satellite 12,500 miles up.

The global positioning system can detect even the tiniest movements of the pins, showing Eric that the two sides of the fault are moving about a quarter of an inch away from each other, every year.

It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a big difference, because the two sides don't slide smoothly. Friction keeps the rocks locked together and tension builds up.

ERIC CALAIS: What we saw was a fault being loaded just like a rubber band.

KIRK WOLFINGER: Eventually, the rubber band snaps. The result is an earthquake.

But how powerful would the earthquake be? Eric did a simple calculation: the speed of the two plates, a quarter inch, or seven millimeters, per year, times the number of years since the last, known, big earthquake: 250.

ERIC CALAIS: Seven times 250 is about 1.8 meters, so there's 1.8 meters of motion that could be released.

KIRK WOLFINGER: In 2008, Eric forecast an earthquake of magnitude 7.2. It was tragically accurate. All that was lacking was a timeframe.

ERIC CALAIS: It's not that we were afraid to put a date on it, it's that as a scientist, we can't.

KIRK WOLFINGER: The timing of some natural disasters is predictable. For example, a hurricane's path can be seen and measured. Its time of landfall can usually be predicted to within an hour. But earthquake scientists are at a huge disadvantage. The powerful forces they study are hidden from view, deep underground.

ERIC CALAIS: The core of the problem is at depth. Fifteen kilometers, roughly speaking, that's the place where we would like to be making our measurements. I would give up my G.P.S. instruments and my surface measurements, if only I could have measurement of the forces inside the earth.

KIRK WOLFINGER: And that's what they're trying to do at another earthquake hotspot, thousands of miles away.

Having witnessed the devastation in Haiti, I've come to a place with some geological similarities; a place where the risk of a major quake is just as great if not greater. In California, Ernie Majer and his team are placing instruments deep inside the Earth, where the seismic forces that cause earthquakes are born.

ERNEST MAJER (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory): And we have a seismic source, and then we have a seismic receiver, and...

KIRK WOLFINGER: Source and receiver?

ERNIE MAJER: A source and a receiver.

KIRK WOLFINGER: The tubes are placed in holes dug deep into the rock: 3,000 feet deep. Now, why 3,000 feet?

ERNIE MAJER: Well, that's as deep as we could get.

KIRK WOLFINGER: Imagine trying to see 3,000 feet, a half a mile, underground. That's nine of the towers behind me, stacked one on top of the other, drilled into solid rock.

ERNIE MAJER: So, all right, hear that little, "Pop, pop, pop, pop?" So, that vibration goes out through the Earth, and this oscilloscope, here,...


ERNIE MAJER:, is measuring the signal.

KIRK WOLFINGER: In 2005 and 2006, while measuring stress along California's San Andreas Fault, Ernie's team got a reading that caught them by surprise. The audio pulses suddenly began to speed up. This happened just before a magnitude 3 earthquake.

ERNIE MAJER: The change started about 10 hours beforehand.

KIRK WOLFINGER: This could be something people have sought for centuries: an earthquake warning sign, a way to predict when an earthquake is about to happen.

So, have you been able to be consistent with this?

ERNIE MAJER: We hope to replicate this over the next year or so. We might be on the path for prediction. We don't know that yet.

ERIC CALAIS: Earthquake prediction, to some extent, is the Holy Grail of the whole field.

KIRK WOLFINGER: And nowhere are they searching harder for the Holy Grail than here, in California.

It's riddled with active geological faults, the most infamous being the San Andreas, which runs the length of the state and is one of the most studied faults in the world.

Tom Jordan coordinates 600 scientists to produce an incredibly detailed, comprehensive earthquake forecast for California that maps out which communities are most at risk.

THOMAS JORDAN: It uses the historical information, it uses our mapping of faults, our understanding of the physics of earthquakes, to estimate how frequently earthquakes will occur in California, where they're going to occur, how big they're going to be, and something about, you know, the probabilities in a given time period.

KIRK WOLFINGER: The result of all that research is this animated computer simulation. It shows in graphic and terrifying detail, how tremors would spread from a rupture on the San Andreas Fault, and move across Southern California.

THOMAS JORDAN: The earthquake has just begun down here, in the southern end of the fault. And it's propagating up the fault at about 6,000 miles per hour.

Notice how it turns and goes into the Los Angeles region. This is an area that's filled with very soft sediments, and it conducts the energy very well.

KIRK WOLFINGER: The simulation shows which neighborhoods are most at risk.

I'm standing here, in the Hollywood Hills, just above the city of Los Angeles. In that simulated earthquake there would be a shockwave that would go right by where I'm standing, and it would shake for about 20 seconds. That would be bad, but because I am on bedrock, I'm probably okay.

THOMAS JORDAN: About 80 seconds after the event began, the strong shaking begins in Los Angeles.

KIRK WOLFINGER: Below the hills, the flatlands will be hit hardest. This whole area sits on sediment, and there will be an aftershake that lasts for several minutes. And that's where the damage will come. And, as you can see, there is a lot here to be damaged.

The 30-year forecast gives a 94 percent probability of California being hit by a quake as big as the one that hit Port-au-Prince.

THOMAS JORDAN: We just have to be prepared for that inevitability.

KIRK WOLFINGER: And it is inevitable, it's not...

THOMAS JORDAN: It is inevitable. It is going to happen. Now, when it happens, we cannot say.

KIRK WOLFINGER: We're still looking for the Holy Grail: predicting the exact timing of an earthquake. But our ability to forecast their size and location is already good and getting better.

Armed with these long-term forecasts, people in earthquake-prone areas can take steps to prepare for the inevitable, the next big one.

THOMAS JORDAN: Are you going to take your chances and hope you luck out, or do you invest for the worst? We're playing a statistical game. It's a gambler's game, and, frankly, nature has the odds.

Got a laptop computer?

...and an internet connection?

Want to help scientists measure and report earthquakes around the world?

Well, then join the "Quake-Catcher Network!"

It uses the built-in motion sensor in your laptop...

...along with lots of others.

Together they can sense and report earthquakes as small as 2.6 on the Richter scale.

All over the world.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: We all know it's dangerous to drive and do other stuff at the same time. Well, cars of the future might fix that. Correspondent Ziya Tong ran down some folks designing robotic cars that could make driving a whole lot safer because we won't be behind the wheel.

ZIYA TONG: Driving today is a nightmare. From texting drivers to horrific traffic jams, the car, once our biggest convenience, is creating some of our biggest problems.

CHRIS BORRONI-BIRD: Today, you see gridlock in a lot of major cities, around the world. In Asia and Europe, traffic is moving at about five to 10 miles an hour, and people are stressed out.

ZIYA TONG: But what if you could redesign a car in a way that could do away with all that stress and gridlock? Auto engineers have come up with an idea, embodied in this, a revolutionary new vehicle, called the EN-V.

When I typically picture a car, I think of, like, four wheels and a steering wheel, but what I'm looking at right now looks like it's more out of a videogame.

CHRIS BORRONI-BIRD: That's right. These vehicles are not cars in the traditional sense of the word.

ZIYA TONG: First of all, to get in you pop the hood.

Let's go for a cruise.

You won't need to gas up ever again, because these high-tech vehicles are electric powered and can be charged in an ordinary outlet—no tailpipe and no toxic fumes.

They're powered by two motors, one in each wheel. Top speed? About 25 miles per hour. They weigh less than 1,000 pounds, a quarter of your average car. And when it comes to maneuverability, these tiny two-seaters can turn on a dime.

But there's one feature that makes these vehicles truly unique.

So right now, you're just in auto-drive mode, is that right?


ZIYA TONG: With the help of G.P.S., wireless and sensing technology, The EN-V can be driven hands-free, along a pre-programmed route. The idea is, you just get in, tell the car where you want to go, and it will take you there.

They can even drive on their own, no human required.

That is incredible. That looks like a ghost car, though, in the way it's driving itself, right? It's actually a bit spooky.

Spooky or not it can also do this:...

Oh, you're going to crash.

...stop by itself, when something is in its path.

CHRIS BORRONI-BIRD: These vehicles know each other's location and direction of movement and speed of movement.

ZIYA TONG: That's because sensors, equipped with vision and ultrasonic technology, give them the ability to sense objects around them. And a wireless network enables them to "talk" with one another, just like computers communicate through the Internet. But instead of sending emails, they share their position and velocity.

So right now, because this vehicle talked to the other vehicle, the other EN-V, it saw us coming and it stopped?

PRI: That's correct, yes.

ZIYA TONG: That's great. So this would prevent accidents?

PRI: This would prevent accidents.

ZIYA TONG: And, in theory, if cars never hit each other, they don't need to be designed like cars.

DANIEL DARANCOU (General Motors): You eliminate the airbags. You eliminate a huge plate of metal between you and the road. We do have seatbelts in there for that inadvertent bump, or, let's say, you fall asleep, so you don't fall out of the seat.

ZIYA TONG: For its debut, three design teams from around the world were invited to create their vision of the car of the future.

DANIEL DARANCOU: The vehicle that was designed in Europe—you know they have all the runways in Milano and Paris—that vehicle is called the Fashionista. It has a very expensive aura to it.

ZIYA TONG: The blue bubble I rode in was designed in Australia. It's called Cute and Friendly.

And the black one that looks a bit like Darth Vader was designed in California.

DANIEL DARANCOU: That one we call the Techno-Geek.

ZIYA TONG: Not only can Fashionista, Cute and Friendly and Techno-Geek drive themselves they can also pick you up.

CHRIS BORRONI-BIRD: The car of the future, like EN-V, you call the vehicle, and it will come to you. I just press this button and it will come and pick me up.

Because walking to a car is so 20th-century.

ZIYA TONG: This is so much cooler than valet; I love it.

Chris hopes these cars will dominate cities of the future and make gridlock a thing of the past.

CHRIS BORRONI-BIRD: What I would like to see, by the year 2030, is that people would still have that freedom of movement that an automobile gives them today, but these vehicles would be communicating with each other and sensing each other, and traffic would flow a lot more smoothly, and people would be able to relax in the vehicle. But what really gets me excited is the fact that this vehicle could really provide accessibility to people who currently don't have accessibility to an automobile. I'm thinking of people who are old, people who are very young and people who are disabled.

ZIYA TONG: When will the EN-Vs be road-worthy? It's hard to say. There are many technical hurdles still to overcome. In fact this poor little EN-V ran out of steam right in the middle of our drive.

And cars like this aren't equipped to drive on the highway alongside unpredictable humans.

To be safe, the EN-Vs will need roadways of their own, where cars, not people, are in control.

Until then, cars like these will remain the stuff of automakers' dreams and designers' fantasies.


Weren't we all supposed to have jetpacks by now?

They're not that easy to make...

But some brave souls kept at it...

And now there are some jetpacks out there that really fly!

The cost?

About $300,000.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Dreams about the future are always filled with gadgets.

Already, we've got plenty—smart phones, computers, tablets—and, at the rate we're going, we're sure to get more. But all these wonders of technology rely on a tricky commodity: electricity.

And the truth is, the system that powers all this stuff is on its last legs.

ROBOT VOICE: Recharge battery.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Recently, I met up with some people who are racing to re-invent the electrical lifeblood of our technological age, so that our visions for the future won't be left in the dark.

I'm about to get a bird's-eye view, of the most interconnected machine on Earth: made up of more than 5,000 power plants, 200,000 miles of transmission lines, delivering electricity to millions of American homes, a 20th century marvel of engineering: our electric grid.

So, I'm looking at the network of transmission lines. They just go far and wide.

ERIC LIGHTNER (United States Department of Energy): Yes, they do. The electrical grid is basically an interstate for electricity, and it goes all over the whole country.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: The grid got its start during the Depression, when the federal government brought electricity to the heartland. But this century-old marvel of engineering is ill-equipped to handle the demands of an energy -hungry society.

Not only is it dirty, about half of our electricity comes from coal-burning power plants that emit greenhouse gases. More than half of our energy is lost in the way we produce, transmit and use it.

According to Eric Lightner, director of the Federal Smart Grid Task Force, the best way to make our grid more efficient and tackle climate change is with a smart grid.

Smart grid? That means right now it's a dumb grid?

ERIC LIGHTNER: Well, it's not as smart as it could be. Let's just say that.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: An underachieving grid.

ERIC LIGHTNER: Yeah. There you go: an underachieving grid.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: There's no better place to see how the grid works and why it needs some smarts, than here. Think air traffic control, but instead of coordinating 747s, these dispatchers monitor the flow of a dynamic and dangerous force that travels close to the speed of light.

Electricity starts its journey to us from huge power plants, like this, where, first, coal is burned to heat water.


The water turns to steam, which spins a turbine that turns a generator that forces tiny particles called electrons through a wire. That's electricity.

No matter how you generate that flow of electrons, the amount has to be just right. That's because too few electrons can cause a blackout, and too many can fry your electronics.

ERIC LIGHTNER: As demand increases or decreases, a power plant has to either go up or down to meet that demand.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And you're monitoring this in real time?

ERIC LIGHTNER: In real time. It's a very delicate balancing act.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: These dispatchers are desperately trying to maintain that delicate balance.

GRID OPERATOR ONE: Something just happened.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: For instance, in this drill, a generator has suddenly gone offline.

GRID OPERATOR TWO: We just lost a large unit in the west.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: These grid operators have only a few minutes to solve the problem, and they're forced to do it the old fashioned way, by getting on the phone with power plants in search of more electrons. If they can't find them, they turn to power plants like this one.

It's called a "peaker" plant, because it's only used during power peaks, about a hundred hours a year. The rest of the time plants like this are sitting around on standby, a wasteful and expensive way to produce energy. In fact, about 25 percent of the cost of producing electricity is spent keeping these plants on hold.

But dispatchers don't have much of a choice.

GRID OPERATOR Frequency's back to normal.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And here's where a smart grid could make a real difference, starting with those old-fashioned power lines.

At the Electric Power Research Institute they're working on giving them some smarts.

ANDREW PHILLIPS (Electric Power Research Institute): We're going to install sensor 460 on the closest line.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: This little sensor may not look high-tech but it has the ability to analyze the condition of a power line.

RESEARCHER (Electric Power Research Institute): Going hot on four.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: For instance, when too many electrons flow through a power line, it gets so hot it starts to sag. Not only that...

ANDREW PHILLIPS: When a line sags it gets closer to the ground, and, therefore, it gets closer to trees. And the electricity going down the line will now go down the tree.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: The result? A blackout, like the one in 2003 that shut down power to millions of people, in eight states and parts of Canada.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN (The Economist): What caused the blackout in 2003? You can put it simply and say there were some mischievous trees that decided to knock down some power lines, and at some level that's true. But the deeper reason is that the grid operators at the utilities didn't have the technical capacity to tell them what was happening on their own power lines.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Smart sensors like this, can analyze the condition of a power line and send that information wirelessly to grid operators, before the lights go out.

But to make our grid truly efficient, it must undergo an even larger transformation.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Imagine if the Internet were to merge somehow with the dumb electricity grid we have. That's the kind of embedded intelligence a smart grid should have.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Intelligence that starts at the power plant and travels all the way to your home. Here's how the grid of the future will work. Your electric company is going to swap your old meter with a smart meter, equipped with wireless communication. All your appliances will be also be smart, they'll be able to communicate with your meter, which in turn will be in constant contact with the grid. This two-way communication between your electric company and your home will enable the grid to actually ask you for help, when it's running low on electrons.

Let's say you're running your clothes dryer and your meter gets a signal that the grid needs power. It can turn down the heat, freeing up some electrons for use elsewhere.

ERIC LIGHTNER: All that happens is your dryer will turn off the heat for 30 seconds; the drum will continue to spin. You will never even know that that event took place.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: The same thing will happen with your air conditioner, dishwasher, even your water heater. And when millions of homes, with tens of millions of smart appliances do the same, dispatchers will have a whole new way to prevent blackouts and get more mileage out of the electricity we generate.

There's no doubt that transforming the most interconnected machine on Earth into one of the smartest is a colossal task, but if we want to tackle global climate change and keep the lights on for generations to come, it's a challenge we'll have to face.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Some people think that because the smart grid is such a huge project it can't get done, but let's remember, energy is the biggest industry on Earth, by far. And we can't live without it.

La Rete Intelligente (The Smart Grid)

The earliest and largest example of a smart grid is in Italy

Where 85% of homes have smart meters,

the highest percentage in the world.

The system can remotely turn power on and off,

read usage information,

and detect service outages.

It is truly the Next Thing Big.

La Fine (The End)

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Pretty much every plant and animal alive today is the result of eons of natural cross-breeding.

We are, of course, the products of our parents and grandparents and all our ancestors.

This orange takes it a step further. It's the result of farmers intentionally cross-breeding different types of oranges to get bigger, juicier, tastier fruit. What they're doing is manipulating genes, D.N.A., the instructions for all living things.

But what if you could go even further and actually write genetic code from scratch? In this episode's profile, we meet one scientist who's trying to do just that: custom design totally new forms of life that, one day, might save the world.

Jay Keasling was raised to work the earth, but instead, this tough Nebraska farm boy might just save the world. And before you think talk like that's just a bunch of manure, well, Jay can tell you all about manure.

JAY KEASLING: We had 200 pigs, and with 200 pigs, there's a lot of manure. And this was really hard work, scooping pig manure.

MAX KEASLING (Jay Keasling's Father): It was no fun at all. Nobody enjoyed it.

JAY KEASLING: And that was probably the worst job. I like to say I spent the first 18 years of my life with the smell of pig manure on my hands.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Today, Jay's got plants, not pigs, and the manure isn't on his hands so much as it's on his mind. Jay Keasling is a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, who's doing amazing things with the waste from bacteria.

He's doing it here, at the Bay Area's Joint BioEnergy Institute, or as everyone around here calls it, "j-bay," though they swear there's no pun intended.

BLAKE SIMMONS (Joint BioEnergy Institute): You could say the acronym a lot of different ways, but we happen to call it j-bay.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Hmmm. No matter what you think about the nickname, JBEI starts with Jay. Jay is the hard working C.E.O. who pays attention to every detail, from lab work...

JAY KEASLING: What's going on right now?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: the method for hanging wall posters.

JAY KEASLING: What you should do is make sure they have two clips and two wires for each poster.

And who says I don't micro-manage?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Actually, Jay is a microbe manager. His first major victory was engineering e coli—a bacterium found in everyone's gut—to produce a drug that will help to cure malaria. Malaria kills nearly a million people each year, or, a child in Africa every 45 seconds. It's a terrible drain on a nation's productivity. And it can be cured by a drug called artemisinin, which comes from a plant that can be difficult to grow, so it can be very expensive to produce.

JAY KEASLING: And the price was too high for people to afford.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Jay saw the perfect opportunity: to engineer bacteria to squirt out artemisinin.

JAY KEASLING: I view microbes as little chemical factories. We're doing the same thing inside the cell, it's just billions of times smaller.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And here's how Jay and his team set out to build a microbial factory for the anti-malarial drug: they wrote new genetic code; then machines assembled it from the four basic chemical ingredients of D.N.A.; they took those synthesized genes and mixed them with genes from yeast and other bacteria, to re-engineer the insides of e coli. And it worked. With custom-made microbes, the life-saving anti-malarial drug can be produced so efficiently, a dose will cost pennies instead of dollars.

JAY KEASLING: We could save on the order of 500,000 lives a year.

BLAKE SIMMONS: It really set Jay apart from the rest of the field, in using synthetic biology as a way to tackle some of the biggest problems that are out there.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Jay got a $43 million grant from the Gates Foundation, and started a company to find ways to take his innovations from the microbe to the market.

JAY KEASLING: It was clearly one of the most exciting periods of my life.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Jay had matched his renowned imagination with his prodigious work ethic. Even late at night, he problem-solves during his workout.

And with two young sons, Jay is determined to take on other challenges facing our planet.

For his next mission, he's reaching back to the roots of his ambition and optimism, back where it all started: on the farm.

JAY KEASLING: My work now relates much more to the farm than it ever has.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Life in Harvard, Nebraska, as in many small farm towns today, is challenging. Jay remembers his childhood fondly, though it was challenging, too.

JAY KEASLING: It was actually a great place to grow up. My father was very quiet, extremely hard working.

From my mother, I think I got a lot of determination, strong will, focus. I think that's been really important for me.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Jay's mother died when he was only 11 years old.

JAY KEASLING: I remember it clearly. She had had cancer, breast cancer, was cured of it, or it was in remission, at least, coming home from her last doctor's appointment. Corn was very tall, so it's hard to see cars coming. She crossed from stopping at a stop sign, was hit by another car, and that car was driven by her first cousin. Both of them died, so...pretty tragic for our family.

MAX KEASLING: It was a tough time of our life. It really was. We just survived and got along. You know, you adjust, and do what you have to do.

Jay was old enough that he really knew, you know? He was 11 years old. Him and his mother were really close, we all were. But it was tough on Jay.

JAY KEASLING: I had to work even harder. There was very little time for fun and games. And that's actually okay; that's served me pretty well, I think, because right now, there's pretty much no amount of work that seems insurmountable for me.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And work hard, he did. Jay became class valedictorian. The small town couldn't hold his ambition, but he was driven to leave by another reason, one that he kept secret.

JAY KEASLING: Being gay in small-town Nebraska is difficult. People who were, if there were any, were certainly not out, and so you had no examples at all.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Throughout college, in Lincoln, while getting his Ph.D. at Michigan, Jay never told his family he was gay. He didn't come out until he arrived at Berkeley.

JAY KEASLING: My father was fine with it.

MAX KEASLING: I just accepted it. He's my son, you know?

JAY KEASLING: It shouldn't matter what ethnicity, what sexual preference you are, anything. It's all about the work.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Now, the mixture of Jay's famous drive and tolerance has led him to design a highly unusual team, reflecting those qualities. There, working side by side, are engineers, biologists, chemists, all working around the clock, under the same roof.

AINDRILA MUKHOPADHYAY (Joint BioEnergy Institute): My background is chemistry.

ERIC STEEN (Joint BioEnergy Institute): I'm actually a graduate student in the department of bioengineering.

PAMELA PERALTA-YAHYA (Joint BioEnergy Institute): He hires people that are strong in their field and expects them to take ownership of the project and get it done.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Jay has assembled a multidisciplinary team, every bit as driven as he is, to work on his next big vision. Their mission: solving the world's energy crisis by manipulating bacteria to produce biofuels that will replace oil.

JAY KEASLING: Petroleum's running out. And it's going to run out even faster, the more the population starts to drive and more economies grow.

This is bio-diesel that's being secreted by e coli.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Jay and his team have already engineered the D.N.A. of e coli to produce bio-diesel from switchgrass. See those little bubbles right there? That's actually fuel, straight from bacteria, ready for a car.

JAY KEASLING: And that could just be siphoned off and put into a tank.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: They've demonstrated the concept of turning sugar from switchgrass into biofuel, and the next step is figuring out how to make the process practical on an enormous scale, one big enough to save the world. And by planting all the switchgrass to make this new biofuel, it might just save places like Harvard, Nebraska, and the farm that's been in Jay's family for five generations.

JAY KEASLING: Someday, these fields will be planted in switchgrass. And these bales will be the cellulose that goes into the fermentation facility that produces our advanced biofuels.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Biofuels that will go into our cars, our planes, our factories.

JAY KEASLING: This is the future of energy for the U.S.

MAX KEASLING: What Jay's doing now could help us a great deal in the future. We could raise lots of acres of switchgrass. And he seems to be pretty positive about that.

JAY KEASLING: We're trying to make the Midwest into the new Mid-east.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And from around these parts, that would definitely be the next big thing.

And now for some final thoughts on The Next Big Thing.

For most of human civilization, the pace of innovation has been so slow

that a generation might pass before a discovery would influence your life, culture or the conduct of nations.

Today, and for a while now, we've come to expect major changes, several times within a decade, especially among the developed countries. Some are big and obvious: the invention of the telephone, the car, the airplane, the computer. Some are big, but unfold slowly: electrified cities and countrysides, access to abundant supplies of food, or the countless ways we can now communicate with one another.

Some of my favorite big things are the accumulations of little things, like the unending role of composite materials in our lives, or the steady growth and power of the Internet.

More often than not, the next big thing takes you by surprise. You don't see it coming. You don't know or believe you need it. Then the inevitable happens: you can't live without it.

A last category of "big thing" comes from the discovery of ideas or perspectives. In 1968, Apollo 8 was the first spacecraft ever to leave Earth for another destination: the Moon. Astronauts on board didn't land, but looped around the back side and snapped a photo of Earthrise over the barren lunar land surface. It took a voyage to the Moon to see Earth for the first time.

Enlightened and empowered by that single image, we transformed the way we care for our planet, which may just be the biggest thing of them all.

And that is the Cosmic Perspective.

...and now we'd like to hear your perspective on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW.

Log on to our Web site and tell us what you think. You can watch any of these stories again, download additional audio and video, explore interactives, hear from experts and then watch revealing profiles from our Web-only series, The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.

Find it all at

That's our show. We'll see you next time.


NOVA scienceNOW: What's the Next Big Thing?

Social Robots
Edited by
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Earthquake Detection
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0917517. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Rodney Brooks
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Chad Cohen
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History
David Hanson
Hanson Robotics
Charlie Kemp
Georgia Tech
Wendy Rogers
Georgia Institute of Technology
Andrea Thomaz
Georgia Institute of Technology
Sherry Turkle

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