Is I, Robot Our Future?
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Is I, Robot Our Future?
The Fact and Fantasy of 'Droid Development
By Lance Ulanoff

PC Magazine/July 16, 2004

I'll admit it, I'm a robot snob.

This has little to do with knowledge and virtually everything to do with my insistence that I think I know what makes a true robot. At least I thought I did, until recent conversations with robotics experts — the people in the trenches building, developing, and programming robotics technologies.

Some new robot developments and a glimpse of this summer's anticipated blockbuster I, Robot got me thinking that I may need to broaden my definition, or better yet, step back and reconsider the whole thing.

What is a robot? Is it a collection of gears, servos, microchips, memory, and nifty programming? Is it a plastic dog that knows how to charge itself, or perhaps a monkey-like remote-controlled robosapien? What about a very human-like servant who in its best moments cares for us, and in its worst possibly kills us? Is it all of the above?

Ask people to describe a robot and they'll tap into a library of fantasy automatons, ranging from The Jetsons' Rosie the Robot and Forbidden Planet's Robbie to Star Wars' C-3PO and R2-D2. If you'd asked me six months ago, I might have argued that a robot is a very specific, electronic, autonomous and interactive object.

Real-Life Robots

Now I realize that "robot" is not a concrete thing. It's a concept largely living in the eye of the beholder, an abstract idea applied to a vast set of technologies.

I admit that this kind of thinking is odd, considering that real commercial and industrial robots now exist in our lives. There's the:

iRobot Roomba robot vacuum

Sony's AIBO pup and QRIO humanoid robots

The Paro "Mental Commit" therapeutic robot

The Mars Rovers

NASA's Cassini-Huygens Saturn probe

Industrial and assembly robots

Robot kits

FurReal "pets" from Hasbro

Honda Asimo

Robot prosthesis and orthotics
The list goes on. Yet, there's precious little commonality among these 'bots.

More Than a Toy?

There are quasi-robots, too, like the Wowee Robosapien. A toy in robot's clothing, the roughly foot-tall Robosapien was released last year to surprisingly positive reviews. With its cool robotic looks, odd movements, and propensity for disgusting noises, it captured the imagination of many in the media.

But is the Robosapien a robot? I never thought so. I've had one in my office for weeks and have used the remote (you must use it) to make it do all sorts of things, but every action carries out a short script. It doesn't react to its environment.

Worse, when I move one of the arms, the head turns. That means that some of the parts cannot move freely, separate from others. Such connected movement gives the illusion of personality, but for me at least, that takes it out of the realm of robotics and places it squarely in the toy arena.

But if people love it and everyone tells me it's a robot, maybe I'm wrong.

Quest for Answers

I took my quest for robotics truth to California, where last month I moderated a robotics panel in Los Angeles that contained some of the brightest minds in the field today.

The panel included Cynthia Breazeal, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab; David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America; Fred Nikgohar, founder and CEO of RoboDynamics; and Paolo Pirjanian, chief scientist at Evolution Robotics Inc. These are people who should know the difference between a robot and a toy.

I asked them each for the criteria they use to define a true robot. Soon the four were throwing out terms like mobility, understanding, personality, autonomy, navigation, social interaction, and cognition. But the group also acknowledged that what we expect of personal robots could just as easily be found in today's "smart" cars, the ones that sense obstacles and prevent you from skidding with antilock brakes and much more. So are cars robots?

We were somehow both getting closer to the heart of the matter and moving further away. Is a robot something that looks and acts like us, or simply anything that shares one or two of our "robot" criteria but has little or no resemblance to any living thing? Why was this definition so hard to nail down?

Products of Imagination

I was beginning to come to terms with the fact that a robot is less a concrete set of characteristics than an "I know it when I see it" kind of thing. Why? Movies. Television. Books. Robots were a part of our fantasy world long before we had the technology to actually produce them.

The first reference to robots (at least according to some texts) comes from Czech writer Karel Capek's 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, In it, he dreamed of machines created to simulate humans.

The late science-fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with coining the term "robotics" in a 1942 short story, even going so far as to outline the three immutable laws of robots.


1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by the human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict the First or Second Law.
There were no actual robots in existence at that time, yet we had robot laws. The '50s were filled with print, movie, and television images of robot friends and protectors. Robots eventually took on more sinister roles, leading up to the murderous Hal in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the late '70s, Star Wars' R2-D2 and C-3PO (a sort of mechanized Laurel and Hardy) loomed largest on the landscape of fantasy robots.

Still, there were no real commercial robots to compare against these fantasies.

Fantasy vs. Reality

So it's no wonder that people only seem to respond to robots that reflect their idea of what one should be. But here's the really exciting thing I learned during my panel discussion: The dream and the reality are beginning to converge.

This became evident when MIT's Cynthia Breazeal opened her brief introduction with a handful of remarkable videos, featuring her social-robot project, Leonardo ( Developed in conjunction with movie special-effects impresario Stan Winston, Leonardo is one of the most remarkable robots I've ever seen.

In the astonishing videos, the skeletal (he had been stripped of his fur), yet somehow still endearing, 2-foot-tall bear-like robot made eye contact with the interlocutor and followed a series of — for a robot — complex instructions. Eventually he learned how to turn a series of lights on and off with his hands. When the video finished, the small audience broke into applause. Now this was the real thing.

Not surprisingly, Breazeal, who has spent years developing this and other "social robots," believes that the human touch — the ability to interact and respond to humans — is key for robotics and, perhaps, for the new definition of personal robotics.

Do They Have to Be Cute, Too?

But what resonated with me and the audience was not just Leonardo's ability to respond and learn, but how he did it. His semi-humanoid form, large eyes, cute floppy ears, and sometimes subtle movements all speak to some deeper part of us — the same subconscious response we had to Robbie the Robot and C-3PO.

By now my mind was a pot stirring with dozens of new ideas about what makes a robot.

"Okay, cute, smart, intelligent, that's a real robot. Like Sony's AIBO dogs. They're cute, they learn, they've sold reasonably well."

But then how could I account for a phenomenon like iRobot's Roomba vacuum? It's not cute, personable, or much like any living thing I know. Yet it's managed to become one of the most popular personal robots in the world today (at least at a commercial level).

If it doesn't synch with our popular definition of a robot, then how could Roomba be one? That question tugged at me as the panelists mused over the RealGirl sex robot as a possible candidate for a "real" personal bot.

But if questions about whether or not Roomba qualifies as a robot were rattling me, iRobot president Helen Greiner, who sat in the audience drinking it all in, seemed unconcerned. Perhaps she was musing over the previous evening, when she and other conference attendees were treated to an exclusive preview of the new Will Smith sci-fi film, I, Robot.

Hollywood's Vision

One of this summer's so-called "event" films, Alex Proyas' I, Robot melds ideas from Asimov's collection of short stories on a robot future and a previously developed script into a sci-fi thriller about a robot accused of killing its creator and, from what I could see in the preview, a robot rebellion.

Its dystopian view of 2035 initially concerned me, since I really don't want people to think that the future of robots is a dark nightmare of role reversal, where robots break Asimov's three laws and we become slaves to them.

Prior to the screening, Helen Greiner shared similar concerns with me and added that she was initially worried about the film because of possible name confusion with her iRobot company. (People have already starting calling her company to ask if they can buy I, Robot's still-imaginary NS-5 personal robot.)

By the time we sat down in the small theater at the 20th Century Fox lot, though, a different Greiner emerged — the robot-fantasy enthusiast. The lights dimmed and we stared, transfixed as images of hyper-realistic, humanoid robots flashed across a 14-foot-high screen. Their semi-translucent faces conveyed volumes of emotion with incredible subtlety. When the ten-minute preview ended, Greiner turned to me, grinning like a child and said, "This is gonna be cool."

She's right, of course. It's the future we've always dreams of — sort of: robots everywhere, helping us do everything we never wanted to do (or could do).

But does it have any relation to reality? Are we actually on a trajectory that will take us from Sony's QRIO and Honda's Asimo straight to I, Robot's stunning central robotic character, Sonny?

Will Life Imitate Art?

Again, I turned to our experts. Will robots like Sonny exist in roughly 30 years?

Robotics Society head Dave Calkins believes that with the rapid advancements in processing power and other computer-related technology 2035 is a fair date to expect to run into Sonny on the street, but Pirjanian and even Nikgohar, who is readying a personal-assistant robot for commercial release later this year, see Sonny as overly optimistic for 2035.

Breazeal demurred and said it was impossible to answer that question, as so many of the enabling technologies have not yet been developed (lightweight long-lasting power source, translucent bioelectric skin, etc). Even so, they all believe that we'll get there someday.

With the preview and panel over, I decided it was time to drop my robot prejudices. Our robotic destinies will be as varied as the world's many tongues.

I will continue to try to set expectations by examining and discussing all robotics developments. I will also embrace all forms of robots and accept the small (Robosapien) and large (Leonardo) advances with equal enthusiasm and prepare for the day when I, Robot's Sonny is as real as the iRobot Roomba.

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