AI: ":The Age of Robots "

From: Mark Plus (
Date: Sat Apr 14 2001 - 13:21:56 MDT


Cover Story 4/23/01

The Age of Robots
We're close to making humanlike machines. It's time to reckon with the
promises and perils

By Thomas Hayden

The millennium was still a half century off in the future when Isaac Asimov
penned his sci-fi classic, I, Robot. So it must have seemed plausible to
imagine a world populated by big, strong, intelligent humanoid robots. The
mechanical replicas he conjured may have had shiny metal bodies and glowing
red eyes, but they otherwise resembled people, thought like people, and–most
important of all–devoted themselves to taking care of the human race.

Contrary to Asimov's genre-defining tale, humankind is still operating
pretty much on its own. Indeed, of all the great science-fiction predictions
to go bust at the end of the millennium–no time machines, no intergalactic
space travel–surely the most galling is the absence of a single decent
robotic maid. Or butler, take your pick. Oh sure, the new Robomower will
trim your lawn while you recline in the hammock, and the Dyson DC06 robotic
vacuum cleaner will soon be available to suck the lint from your carpets.
But if you want something from the fridge, you're still going to have to
fetch it yourself.

If visionaries like Asimov may have been wrong about the timing, they were
right to predict a bright robotic future. Indeed, robots of various stripes
seem to be popping, whirring, buzzing, and gliding up just about everywhere.
Very practical-minded bots are at work in the real world right now,
exploring distant planets, assisting with precision surgery, and locating
deadly land mines. The toy market, already home to Aibos and Poo-Chis, is
just months away from a massive invasion by robotic cats, dogs, and mice as
well as mechatronic aliens and babies and dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg will
set the stage for the fall shopping frenzy this summer when his movie A.I.
does for supersmart, supersensitive robots what his Jurassic Park did for
supersmart, supervicious dinosaurs. And labs around the world are busily
working on the robotic parts–feet and knees for walking, hands for grasping,
versions of eyes and ears–that will someday be stitched together into a
fully functional humanoid robot.

Early lessons. The dream of such a humanoid compatriot–machine enough to
boss around but human enough to be a good sidekick–stretches back at least
to the early 20th century. But the early decades of research proved mainly
this: that humans are a lot more complex than originally considered–and it's
really, really hard to build one. In the past few years, however, important
advances in computer science, artificial intelligence, biomechanics, and
material science have once again raised hopes of reaching the holy grail of
robotics. In fact, progress toward a fully autonomous, intelligent robot has
been so convincing that any number of technofuturists are worrying publicly
about the perils of robotics. At least one highly regarded scientist, Bill
Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has predicted that our own robotic
creations might one day replicate themselves and contribute to humankind's

Whether humans are in a hopeful or precarious place, the journey here has
been an intellectual challenge. Don't even contemplate the brain for a
moment. How about something simple like walking on two legs. Humans do it
naturally, and our ancestors have for millions of years, but it took one of
the largest industrial companies in the world 10 years and untold millions
to build a machine that could master a workable form of bipedalism. That was
the Honda P3, a 5-foot, 3-inch, 290-pound astronaut look-alike unveiled by
the Japanese car company in 1996. Widely hailed as a triumph of pure
engineering willpower, the P3 does walk convincingly and can even go up and
down stairs. But the Honda spokesbot–P3 has been succeeded by the more
diminuitive Asimo–can manage only a sluggish 1 mile per hour on the
straightaway. It's going to take a lot more hustle than that to make it in
the domestic-service racket.

The trick to making an athletic robot is simulating the finely tuned
orchestra of muscle, bone, and nerve that has evolved over countless
millennia. All robots make use of the same basic components to do this. A
jointed metal or plastic frame serves for a skeleton, and a variety of
actuators (motors, pulleys, gears, hydraulics, and so forth) provide muscle
power. But the new humanoids are not just bodies; they're also sophisticated
sensing machines, packed with cameras, microphones, even "haptic" sensors
that mimic the sense of touch. Significant engineering challenges still
remain–one of the most fundamental is finding a way to power the
energy-hungry machines–but most researchers are confident that they'll get
the physical side of things worked out in the near future.

And then there are the brains. At MIT's humanoid robotics lab, the
cartoonish, head-only robot Kismet is just slightly larger than a normal
human noggin. And yet the contraption relies on a bank of 15 external
computers to control its social abilities and impressive array of facial
expressions. Asimo and P3 are downright doltish by comparison, depending on
remote-control operators and pre-scripted programs to tell them what to do.
Other advanced humanoid bodies leave all the thinking to humans. NASA's
prototype space worker Robonaut, for example, mimics the movements of a
human operator in a sensor-laden "tele-presence" suit. The operator bends
his elbow, and the robot bends its elbow in response, like a mechanical
mirror image.

Despite decades of intensive research in artificial intelligence, the brains
are lagging behind the knees and wrists. During the field's early days, says
Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's AI lab and its humanoid robotics group,
researchers tried to make machines smart by writing elaborate, computerized
problem-solving programs. They assumed the sequences of facts, physical
laws, and logical relationships would add up to thinking. The results could
be impressive–just ask chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who was humbled by
IBM's Deep Blue in 1997–but making a thinking machine turned out to be much
harder than the scientists imagined. Chess, for all its challenges to human
brain power, turns out to be a simpler pursuit than, say, making soup. A
chess-bot needs only information and logic, but a chef-bot without a dash of
creativity, intuition, and flair would be little more than an expensive,
programmable Cuisinart. Take that pot of soup. You cut some vegetables, boil
some bones, throw in a bay leaf or two, maybe some other spices. But what
vegetables and how many? How to tell a turnip from a turkey leg? And, ahem,
whose bones? And how on Earth could a robot add salt to taste with no sense
of what "saltiness" means–and, for that matter, no sense of taste?

The high marks of Enlightenment thinking–logic and problem solving–turn out
to be much easier to simulate than the perceptual and intuitive things that
any kid can do, Brooks says. Stuffing a computer full of facts (chicken
bones good, dog bones bad) and equations (salt tolerances between 1 and 3
teaspoons per quart, say) works well for number-crunching tasks. But for
real-world smarts–remembering to grab an umbrella if it looks like
rain–logic alone just doesn't cut it.

So how then to proceed? Increasingly, AI researchers are looking to children
for the answer. Kids are essentially learning machines, and while no one is
quite sure how they do it, there's clearly a lot of imitation and
interaction, and plenty of room for trial and error. If robots are ever
going to have humanlike intelligence, the new thinking goes, perhaps they'll
have to develop it the way babies do. And that, says Cynthia Breazeal, the
MIT roboticist behind Kismet's licorice-whip lips and Groucho Marx eyebrows,
requires social interaction.

Kismet is programmed to seek sensory stimulation–voices, movement,
brightness, and color–which it attracts with beguiling expressions and a
sort of babbling baby talk. If an expression works, and a passing human
comes up to play, Kismet's internal "social drive" is satiated. If not, the
levels sink and Kismet tries a new strategy to connect. But there are
balancing desires: Get too close and Kismet will let you know you've invaded
its space with an exaggerated look of annoyance. Play too rough and the
usually docile head may assume an alarming grimace or turn away.

"The whole point," says Breazeal, "is that the robot is trying to get you to
interact with it in ways that can benefit its ability to learn." Basic
movements are programmed into Kismet's behavior, but its handlers hope human
feedback will help it learn new gestures and vocalizations by imitating
people and storing successful attempts in its memory. "It helps the robot
learn the social meaning of its actions," Breazeal says. The goal is for
Kismet to learn not just to "think" for itself but also, as every child
must, to understand that its actions have consequences.

What's good for the mind is good for the muscles. Maja Mataric, a computer
scientist and roboticist at the University of Southern California, is trying
to solve the problem of motor control. The entire range of human–or
robot–mobility, she says, "can be collapsed down to a reasonably sized set
of movements." Called "primitives," these basic motions can be combined or
modified to produce novel activity. Take reaching. Whether you're stretching
your racket arm out to volley a tennis ball or grabbing the lid off a
boiling pot, says Mataric, "you use a standard way of reaching, the same
basic movement." Once a robot has the basic moves down, mimicking people is
much easier. All it takes is a little practice, plus a few learning and
adaptation algorithms to help the machine capitalize on its mistakes. The
result: a bot that can learn to dance the Macarena just by watching. In
theory anyway–a good body is hard to come by, so Mataric works mostly with
computer simulations with realistic physical properties such as gravity and

Practical applications. Not all researchers buy the developmental theory of
robot building. Kazuhiko Kawamura of Vanderbilt University, for example,
programs his humanoid ISAC to perform practical tasks, such as feeding
disabled patients. Machines that learn from the ground up might make for
interesting interactions, Kawamura says, but "a humanoid robot needs to have
more than just fascinating behaviors. To me, that approach only gets you a
robotic baby. And we don't need a robotic baby."

While many roboticists are focused on developing useful machines, a few like
Mataric and MIT graduate student Brian Scassellati are more interested in
what humanoids can tell us about humans. "Humanoids give us a platform for
research," says Mataric. There's nothing like trying to build a simulation
of a baby, for example, to show you just how much you don't know about how
babies are built.

Scientists are also starting to use the machines to test theories and
notions about how brains work. "There are some really nice models of how
children learn basic social skills" but few ways to test them, says
Scassellati, who has a special interest in autism. The robot he works on, a
rugged-looking head and torso unit named Cog, is the product of almost 10
years of evolutionary development. Finally, says Scassellati, "we're
starting to be able to look at these models [with Cog] and say something
intelligent about them." Testing behavioral theories with a robot, he says,
may provide a major advantage over computer simulations, the only other
method presently available. "In building something I have to deal with the
real social scenarios," he says, "not my idea of how social scenarios should
work. In building something, I'm forced to get it right."

And not just right–approachable, too. These are social robots after all, so
they won't be much use if they give people the willies. "We try to build
something that looks enough like a person so that you could treat it like a
person and you don't feel too weird about it," says Scassellati. Stephen
Jacobsen, a University of Utah professor whose robotics company Sarcos makes
amusement park automata as well as terrifically sophisticated humanoid robot
bodies, says giving a machine the look of life is really quite simple.
"First it's the movement, then it's the eyes," he says. Jerkiness is a sure
turnoff. And as with the body, it's not always how real eyes look; rather,
it's how they move. "If the eyes are at all awkward, people just don't like
it," says Jacobsen. "But if they're graceful, people are intrigued."

If robots are ever going to live and work with us, they've got to look good,
too. Some designers prefer the stylized, impersonal look of Robonaut or the
sleekly modernist Japanese humanoid SIG. For the more truly social machines,
designers have two options; they can go for the disarmingly goofy look of
MIT's Kismet, or they can shoot for realism. At the Science University of
Tokyo, Fumio Hara and his team study robot-human interactions using
intricately constructed "face robots," mechatronic skulls complete with
lifelike dentures and eyeballs. Silicone masks can be pulled over the
underlying mechanism–transforming it into a famous athlete, for example.
Nineteen different actuators pinch, push, and stretch the rubbery skin into
myriad expressions, some of them human, some of them most decidedly not. Too
much realism, it turns out, can be just as much of a social obstacle as too
little. "As you start looking more and more like a person," says
Scassellati, "you pass a certain point where it becomes scary and
off-putting because it looks enough like a person and yet it's wrong."

Bad PR. If it seems like the robot builders are trying to put a kinder,
gentler face on their creations, they are. In North America, at least,
robots have had terrible PR. We associate robots with herky-jerky movements,
brutish strength, and a personality limited to grim, remorseless logic.
That, says Mataric, amounts to nothing less than antirobot prejudice. "There
are all sorts of misconceptions about robots as halting, mechanical things.
It's a stereotype. What people know is what they saw in the old movies. It
has nothing to do with reality."

Robots' image is much better in Japan. "I've always taken it for granted
that robots are friendly and not something to compete with," says Japanese
roboticist Hiroaki Kitano, whose futuristic SIG could win an automaton's
beauty contest. "It's very curious for me why the Americans nearly always
portray robots [as evil]." In fact, many Japanese researchers credit their
childhood love of fictional robots–especially the peppy and resourceful
Astro Boy, who delighted postwar Japan–with inspiring the national drive to
develop helper robots. By legend, Astro Boy came into being in 2003–a date
as significant to Japanese sci-fi aficionados as 2001 is here.

There's more to Japan's domination of the emerging humanoid robot world than
an old cartoon, of course. With their traditional markets saturated, says
Takeo Kanade of Carnegie Mellon University, corporate giants like Honda and
Sony are casting about for new products. "Humanoid robotics is one of many
things they're looking at as a potential new industry. They have the money,
the technology, and the long-range vision to move into new areas." The
products might be toys now, but these and other robotic pioneers are serious
about developing humanoids to work as office assistants, caretakers for the
elderly, and other human aides.

Living robots. If learning, memory, and creative intelligence really all are
possible, then can machine consciousness be far behind? That would depend on
what exactly consciousness is, of course, and to date there is no
agreed-upon definition. There's no evidence that consciousness exists
anywhere outside of a biological brain, notes philosopher Colin McGinn in
his book The Mysterious Flame. But neither can anyone point to a reason why
it couldn't, short of invoking the religious or mystical. A growing number
of experts are beginning to accept that conscious robots are all but
inevitable sometime in the future.

The vision they conjure up looks pretty bright for intelligent machines, but
our own prospects may be decidedly more grim. In his bracingly ominous Wired
essay, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy all but
sounded the death knell for the human species last year. Advances in
robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, he wrote, could lead to a
world populated by super-organisms, both biological and mechanical. By
building machines that are like us, only smarter, stronger, and more easily
produced, Joy suggests, we could in fact be creating our own worst enemy in
an evolutionary battle for survival. James Martin, a technology and business
consultant, warns of a coming alien intelligence in his book of the same
name. As machines become ever more intelligent, he argues, they will not
only outpace our cognitive abilities but will develop new forms of thinking
that will be beyond our comprehension. If we can't understand what we've
built, we may not be able to control it. Ray Kurzweil, an
artificial-intelligence pioneer, gives us about 20 more years of
intellectual superiority over computers. By that time, he argues in The Age
of Spiritual Machines, computers won't just be intelligent, they'll be
conscious, feeling beings deserving of the same rights, privileges, and
considerations we give each other.

Beyond a morass of ethical issues, what exactly might all of this mean for
humanity? The speculations range from the catastrophic to the merely creepy.
Most unpleasant is the "what goes around comes around" scenario, where the
machines turn the tables and enslave us for a change. There is actually
historical precedent for a robot rebellion; the word robot comes from
robota, the Czech for an annual debt of forced labor. In 1848, the serfs
rose up against their Austro-Hungarian landlords in protest. A different
story, to be sure, but the term and the concept of mechanized serfs entered
the Western consciousness with the grim baggage of class warfare.

Alternatively, the robots of the future could simply ignore us, leaving us
to pursue our archaic organic mode of life, irrelevant but hardly dangerous.
Finally, there is the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" scenario. Hans
Moravec, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, proposes that humanity
may be able to survive, and even achieve a level of immortality, by
digitally uploading our own consciousness into advanced robots.

We're probably decades away from having to worry about anything more than
running out of batteries. Still, it seems clear that big changes are coming,
and while humans–the flesh and blood type–usually manage to adapt to
technological change, the period of adjustment can sometimes get pretty
uncomfortable. As with any new technology, there will certainly be some
unintended, and quite possibly unpleasant, consequences as robots begin to
play a regular role in our day-to-day lives, USC's Mataric notes. But she's
confident that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. "I hope society is
strong and wise enough to stop abuses without stopping science," she says,
"but I think all of that is still a long way off." Before anyone has to
start really worrying about our place in the future, the techies have a heck
of a lot more work to do.

With reporting by Peter Hadfield in Tokyo

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