April 13, 2005
by Maya Rao
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
"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
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
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
"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,"
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,
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