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.

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