Archive for April 17th, 2010

The state of robotics

April 17, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
The state of robotics

In a recent article in Discover Magazine called “Machine Dreams,” (May, 2010, not yet available online) a panel of robotics experts discussed the relationships among people and the machines we call robots. What is a “robot”? Rodney Brooks of MIT offered this definition:

[A] robot is something that senses the world, doesn’t some sort of competition, and decides to take an action outside of its physical extremity. That action might be moving around, or it might be grabbing something and moving it. I say “outside it’s extremity” because I don’t like to let dishwashers be defined as robots.

The panel offered a lively discussion, focusing on many real-world applications. Robots are doing many things these days, including surveillance and reconnaissance during flood disasters. Robots are already quite good at some things, but Rodney Brooks offers some sobering thoughts for those who think of robots as replacements for human beings. We have quite a ways to go. Where are we headed? Here are the goals for which robotics researchers are currently striving to reach (according to Brooks):

First the object recognition capabilities of a two-year-old child. You can show a two-year-old a chair that he’s never seen before, and he’ll be able to say, “that’s a chair.” Our computer vision systems are not that good. But if our robots did have that capability, would be able to do a lot more.

Second, the language capabilities of a four-year-old child. When you talk to a four-year-old, you hardly have to dumb down your grammar at all. That is much better than our current speech systems can do.

Third, the manual dexterity of a six-year-old child. A six-year-old can tie his shoelaces. A six-year-old can do every operation that a Chinese worker does in the factory. That level of dexterity, which would require a combination of new sorts of sensors, new sorts of actuators, and new algorithms, will let our robots do a lot more in the world.

Fourth, the social understanding of an eight or nine-year-old child. Eight or nine-year-olds understand the difference between their knowledge of the world and the knowledge of someone they are interacting with. When showing a robot how to do a task, they know to look at where the eyes of the robot were looking. They also know how to take social cues from the robot.


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