Robots May Be Built as Companions, Expert Says

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 19, 2003
A long time from now, in a house right next door, a robot that is at least as well cobbled together as the android C-3PO of Star Wars fame may be playing a game of cribbage with an elderly widow.

"I have felt for years that the first 'killer application' of personal robots will be companionship, especially for the elderly," said Roger Brockett, a professor of computer science and engineering at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Robots are potentially much smarter than dogs and they will not require the same level of upkeep."

Brockett, who founded the Harvard Robotics Laboratory in 1983, is one of several scientists who believe robots will some day be a part of everyday life. They may be companions and helpers in much the same way that C-3PO and R2-D2 chum around with Luke Skywalker on the silver screen.

Joel Burdick, a mechanical engineer and director of the Robotics Group at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, envisions personal robots as something akin to a very sophisticated handheld computer.

They may remind people of their schedules as they leave the house, keep an eye on children while dinner is prepared, deliver mail in an office, dispense drugs at a hospital—"all kinds of tasks that free up people, trying to make people's lives easier," he said.

Manuela Veloso, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, looks forward to a future where robots are as much accepted into daily life as the family dog or a newborn child.

"I'm interested in something that just co-exists with us rather than filling any holes, in the same way that when a human is born we do not need it, but it becomes a part of our lives," she said.


Budding examples of these futuristic machines squared off against each other earlier this month in a series of soccer matches at Carnegie Mellon in the International RoboCup Federation's first American Open.

The soccer competition, which has been held in various parts of the world for the past seven years, has a goal of creating a team of robots that can beat the human World Cup champions by 2050.

The goal is an excuse to push the boundaries of robotics, said Veloso, who is vice president of the International RoboCup Federation. "Unfortunately for robots, we don't know what they need to be doing," she said. "By creating a sports task, a result tasks, we gave them a goal."

On the road to achieving the goal of building superhuman robotic soccer players, the cup promoters hope that scientists will make technological advances that allow robots to see, hear, touch, and smell their world through sensors, to be able to think for themselves, and to move at least as well as humans.

Veloso said she doubts that she and her colleagues will create Word Cup champion robots by 2050 unless "we make dramatic progress," but that the field of robotics is moving along at a faster clip than she had in mind when the RoboCup concept was conceived in 1995.

Brian Duffy, a robotics researcher with Media Lab Europe in Dublin, Ireland who has participated in the RoboCup competitions, says the games work well by forcing people to integrate technologies into "coherent autonomous robot solutions."

"It also works quite well in popularizing what stage robot research is currently at and provides a compelling robot gaming scenario for the general public," he said.

State of Robotics

Although a robot the likes of C-3PO or the Brazilian soccer great Pelé are still a futuristic fantasy, the concept of human-like robots is currently very popular in Japan, said Burdick. "Japanese society is becoming very elderly and they think they will need more robots in the home to help out elderly people."

Honda Motor Co. of Japan is currently promoting what it calls the most advanced humanoid. Named ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), the robot can interpret the postures and gestures of humans and move independently in response.

The company says in a statement that ASIMO can "greet approaching people, follow them, move in the direction they indicate, and even recognize their faces and address them by name." The robot can also access information via the Internet and use it to answer people's questions (in Japanese) about the news and weather.

There are also robots on the consumer market such as the Roomba Intelligent FloorVac from iRobot, which performs the household chore of vacuuming. The robot is a commercial venture of computer scientists and engineers affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Cambridge.

Most robots in use today are designed to perform specialized tasks. Jean-Claude Latombe, director of the Robotics Lab at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, said that robots are becoming more diversified in manufacturing where they can, for example, perform multiple tasks on multiple models of cars on an assembly line.

Latombe also said that robots are showing promise as surgeons where precise, quick actions are needed. "Humans tend to be imprecise and don't react quickly," he said.

The first robot used in surgery, said Burdick, was for hip replacement. The surgeons determined that a robot could cut and rout out a hole in the hip for the replacement part with greater accuracy and precision than a surgeon, which made for a better-fitting hip.

Other specialized uses of robotics include putting them in environments considered dangerous for humans, such as monitoring nuclear reactors and exploring the surface of Mars. Additionally, the U.S. military is funding several projects that will use robots to perform tasks such as surveillance behind enemy lines.

This idea of having robots perform tasks considered hazardous for humans played itself out at the Carnegie Mellon robot gathering, where in addition to the soccer games, a suite of semi-autonomous robots crawled and slithered through the rubble of a simulated disaster site.

Organizers of the event hoped that eventually, when disasters happen, the use of robots will minimize risk to search-and-rescue workers while increasing victim survival rates.

Future Robots

According to Burdick, robots will become a part of every day life once five technological hurdles are cleared: computing power, sensor technology, power supply, motors, and smarts.

Computing power and sensor technologies are both rapidly improving and dropping in price, he said. Significant breakthroughs are needed in the other areas. Current robots last about an hour on a full charge and the current motors, or actuators, are cost-prohibitive.

As for the smarts, he likens their development to that of computer operating systems. At first they were no good, but they are getting "better and better," he said.

Latombe, who has the vision that someday a robot will water the garden, trim overgrown branches, and apply pesticides when they are required, said "we are years away from being able to tell a robot to maintain the garden and have it do whatever is needed."

But when eventually built, such a robot, said Latombe, it may not even look like a human. Rather he believes that humans will continue to inspire the field of robotics, but that future robots may look nothing like their source of inspiration.

Duffy at Media Lab Europe said that "from a purist perspective, a synthetic human is very far away and the reason is simple: A human is not a machine and vice versa. The idea to try and build a perfect robotic version of a human is inherently flawed. It constrains the machine to only be able to do what we can."

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