The robot revolution is just beginning
Despite a half-century of exponential growth in computational power, the state of robotics is pretty much still the same, but that may not be true for much longer, according to Rodney Brooks former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)
Brooks, now the chairman and chief technology officer of Heartland Robotics, spoke at MIT on April 20: In robotics, “today’s technology is going to look so incredibly primitive in a couple of decades. Brooks’s “lips are sealed,” as The Economist put it, about what exactly he and Heartland Robotics are up to. But venture capitalists have already gambled $32 million on the premise that whatever it is they produce, it’s going to set a whole new direction in the field.
Brooks’ first major contribution to the field came from an insight based on nature: the idea of building swarms of tiny, inexpensive robots with autonomous control systems. Initially intended as an alternative to NASA proposals for huge planetary rovers, the concept was described in a research paper called “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.” Soon thereafter, Brooks became a central character in a documentary film of the same name by Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris.
The concept of smaller, simpler robots did ultimately have an impact on NASA, and led to Brooks’ work on the first mobile robotic device ever to land on another planet: a Mars rover called Sojourner.
Working with MIT students and postdocs, Brooks developed a variety of robots that could watch people’s facial expressions and gestures and make inferences about their meaning and emotional state — for example, sensing when people were frustrated or bored. The goal, then as now, was to create robots that could more easily interact with human beings.
Brooks’ latest concept for next-generation robots could, he thinks, revolutionize manufacturing. Instead of huge machines that need to be kept inside protective cages so they won’t injure nearby workers, he envisions smaller, nimbler, more responsive robots that could work alongside people, helping them with tasks. The new robots, he says, will compare to today’s lumbering industrial robots in much the way that an iPhone compares to an earlier, rooms-sized mainframe computer.
Brooks isn’t revealing anything yet about what his new robots will look like, or what they’ll be capable of doing. But based on his comments at MIT, don’t expect them to look much like people. “If you make them too humanlike, people’s expectations go up, and they’re easily disappointed,” he said. “You don’t want to make it looks like Einstein!”