April 13, 2005

Brooks Forecasts Future of Robotic Technology

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Artificial intelligence and robotics expert Rod Brooks forecasts major changes in the next 50 years. Much in the way that computers have revolutionized society, robots may take on an increasingly significant role in people’s lives. As part of the Gerard Salton Lecture Series, Brooks delivered a talk yesterday entitled “Flesh and Machines: Robots and People” to discuss potential applications of intelligent robots.

Brooks, who directs the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, asserted that we have more in common with robots, and machines in general, than we think.

“Mankind has had a long history of retreat from ‘special-ness,'” Brooks said.

Centuries ago, humans discovered that Earth was not, in fact, the center of the universe. Later, humans and animals were found to have common ancestors. DNA as the fundamental mechanism of life means that humans and yeast are somewhat similar.

“Over time men have become less special and more like technology,” Brooks said. “We only have 25,000 genes — even potatoes have more than that!”

Brooks showed videos of several robots designed in his lab. In one scene, Brooks’s colleague Cynthia “plays” with a robot she designed, Kismet.

“We see her moving that eraser, then the robot moving it. They’re taking turns.” At least, Brooks added, that’s what the average observer would think. “But when we thought about it, she was doing all the work. She was giving the robot motion cues. That set us off on reading literature on child development.”

Like Cynthia, mothers give their infants motion cues. They engage in activities with their children that the children cannot do by themselves, but can be trained to do with their caregiver’s help.

“What the robot sees drives what it does,” Brooks said.

Inside these robots exists a three-dimensional space; the robot’s emotions are a point in that space. The robot uses its emotional state to generate how it reacts to certain objects, and can display emotion through facial expressions.

In another experiment suggestive of robots’ similarity to children in their earliest stages of development, the lab called in various people to speak with the robot.

“When a mother interacts with her child, she generates messages through her voice: praise, attention, prohibition,and soothing are the four basic messages,” Brooks said.

In the video, when one woman said, “Good job, Kismet! Look at my smile!” in an encouraging voice, the robot smiled proudly. When another said, “No, no, that’s not appropriate” in a disparaging tone, Kismet lowered his head, his large ears drooping.

Although robots like Kismet don’t actually understand the meanings of words, they are able to vocally replicate phonemes. As people teach various words to Kismet and Cog, another of CSAIL’s robots, the robots can repeat them and identify them with their corresponding objects.

Brooks acknowledges that the development of intelligent robots is still in beginning stages, although significant progress has been made in areas like navigation. However, he said, “I think beyond navigation, robots have new possibilities which will be important.”

As the world’s demographics shift in the next half century, robots can be useful in fields such as manufacturing, agriculture and elderly assistance. Brooks imagines being able to roboticize large agriculture machines for the maintenance of individual plants. Such robots could do menial and time-consuming tasks like pruning and picking.

“Europe and the U.S. import low-cost labor now … But that labor may not be there in 50 years,” Brooks said.

Second, robot arms could be used for fixed automation, which is particularly useful in manufacturing. Such robots would require the dexterity of a six-year-old, said Brooks. Third, he hoped that robots could be developed to provide in-home care to the elderly, who will soon comprise a much larger demographic in places like North America, Europe, Korea and Japan.

The future, however, holds many challenges to realizing certain robotic applications. “Will we accept robots?” Brooks asked the audience.

It may be hard, he explained, for humans to come to grips with machines that may equal or surpass their own capabilities. Few people want to admit that their emotions can exist within a machine.

“I’m not saying current robots have real emotions, but if they did, it would be hard for people to accept … and there would certainly be legislation against it!” Brooks said as the audience laughed.

“I liked the lecture very much,” said Hugo Fierro grad. “I already took some courses on robots, but never thought about the philosophical aspect of it. I liked his predictions, although they’re very futuristic.”

“It was a lot of fun. I heard some very interesting and provocative ideas,” said Prof. Graeme Bailey, computer science.

And as for the possibility of Brooks’ vision becoming reality someday? “I hope so,” Bailey said. “If one was to answer no to that, we have a somewhat dismal future for ourselves.”

Archived article by Maya Rao
Sun Staff Writer