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Running with robots

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They walk like people, swim like fish, scramble like cockroaches. They juggle, delicately grasp light bulbs, make eye contact, exchange looks, follow simple commands. Their inventors see them as toys and tools in the short run; some see them as humanity’s competitors, perhaps successors, in the long run.

Writer Faith D’Aluisio and writer-photographer Peter Menzel toured robotic laboratories to see an emerging mechanical bestiary, most of which is far too fickle for the outside world — for now. The California-based duo recently spoke with the Metro Times about their new book, Robo sapiens: Evolution of a New Species (MIT Press, $29.95, 240 pp.).

Metro Times: You write about a moment of revelation seeing the Honda P3 robot in Japan.

Peter Menzel: We knew that it had taken them 10 years to get to this point where this machine could look like it was walking effortlessly. And it was a very cool sort of deception because the machine is totally programmed. It’s modeled after human walking, and it pretty much replicates human walking. But you can’t tell it to go over and open the door. It opens the door that it knows how to open; it climbs the stairs that it knows how to climb. If you happen to get in its way, you’re going to get kicked.

This machine is amazing, but amazingly limited, too — but you wouldn’t really know that if you just walked in on the beginning of the demo: They let this thing go by itself, and it just moves wonderfully. At that point we realized that if the machines get hooked up with the artificial intelligence to a point they can act more on their own, then you really have something.

Faith D’Aluisio: The one thing that I would say about the Honda robot is that it was very glamorous. They pulled out all the stops. You go into this room, and it’s this cavernous room that is incredibly secret, and you can just feel the secrecy.

Menzel: All the next-generation robots they’re working on are covered with sheets so you can’t even get a peek at them.

D’Aluisio: And believe me, I wanted to. I just wanted to pull one sheet off — whoops.

MT: Were there other moments like that?

Menzel: We saw a robot at the University of Michigan called RHex that doesn’t look like much. It’s a hexipod — six legs — and it moves like a cockroach. I mean, it scrambles.

D’Aluisio: It skitters.

Menzel: I’ve just seen a video of the next generation. It’s just mind boggling. They put it in the woods in rocky terrain, and this thing just goes wreee wreee, and it runs all over the place like an animal. And after the kind of motion that you saw on tracked robots or wheeled robots or robots that are so deliberate and slow — this thing is just super cool. It all came out of Rob Full’s cockroach research at the University of California; he gave information to several different roboticists through conferences. ... There are two versions of this kind of machine — one at Stanford and one at the University of Michigan — and this is just going to change the way things move and work and people’s ideas of mobile machines.

MT: Can you talk about Kismet, Cynthia Breazeal’s robot at MIT that reacts to facial expressions as a child would?

Menzel: The first couple of times that I saw it, it wasn’t working very well. Then the last time … it was just right on the money. It would follow your eyes and act like a decapitated mechanical head stuck on a desk and hooked up to a huge computer.

D’Aluisio: It looks like a cartoon character, though. It’s not meant to look like a human, but it certainly has human interaction.

MT: In the book, Peter talks about it in almost human terms, as being "alive and well" for that visit and being as cute as a human baby.

Menzel: The first time you see these things, you are a little skeptical until they turn them on, and they start moving. And with a lot of them, you immediately make a connection of some kind of life form inside of this thing — which doesn’t really exist. But you do anthropomorphize it.

D’Aluisio: You know, it’s like something that philosophers say: What really is the essence of life? And what is that spark? And is it something that is really only at face value? I think we’re way too far at the early stages to actually say how much like a human something else that we perceive as acting like a human is. Because what are we?

MT: You say that robots are where computers were 10 years ago and are about to take off. Do you have a scenario?

Menzel: You go away for a couple months, you come back, and people have some different cool machines. If you saw the cover of Wired magazine this month, that machine was being built — the M2 walking robot — we showed it in our books as a Styrofoam-and-stick prototype, and a year later they’ve got one that is taking its first steps. It’s a walking machine.

MT: But what do you see having the biggest impact in the short term?

D’Aluisio: I would not want to hazard a guess about that only because there have been so many false starts. … It seems to me that the problem has been and continues to be making a jump from research to marketplace, and there are some like the AIBO that are fairly successful. That’s the dog robot from Sony. (Price: $2,500) We went home with a family and just observed them interacting with their robot pet … The dad is just totally, totally caught up with this thing, and the kid, he’d rather play with his Pokémon cards, or play video games. He wishes it would recognize him. But I’m sure that will be the next step.

Menzel: It may be better to spend $1,500 for iRobot’s little machine that will run around in your apartment and videotape your compost pile composting or something. …. But they’re coming out with a little machine, and they hope that these will be like the first Apple computers, where people get these things and everybody adds different applications and by the collective geekiness of the world will come up with really dandy uses for these things.

D’Aluisio: I think a lot of stuff is going to end up in the closet, at least for a little while.

MT: And not on the streets?

D’Aluisio: Think about robots or some kind of avatar out on the street doing your shopping for you. There are dangers that you really have to think about before you can allow that to happen. Can you imagine like on the streets of downtown Kyoto or New York City having robots chockablock along with people? It doesn’t seem very feasible to me, but then again it might work on a Mars colony.

MT: Earlier this year, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems created a stir with an essay in Wired ("Why the future doesn’t need us") where he said that with genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics, humans may be engineering our own extinction. Do you see your book contributing to that debate?

D’Aluisio: Certainly his ideas are pretty dire. I think we are an entrant into the dialogue. I tend to think that we as journalists provide a more even hand bringing in different points of view. And hopefully people will understand the whole process a little bit more, and hopefully understand themselves a little bit more. I certainly understand myself a little bit better.

MT: In what way?

D’Aluisio: I guess I’d never really thought about how much human life is a social construct, and talking to people like Paul MacCready, who is in his 70s, who have had a lot of time for reflection, and people like that, who are working on these very scientific problems and also very esoteric and artful projects as well. He doesn’t lose sight of the fact of our humanness.

MT: When you hear people talking about, for instance, machines spontaneously achieving consciousness, do you find yourself asking: "Where am I?"

Menzel: Sometimes you almost start to believe that.

D’Aluisio: Maybe you do. I don’t know.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail wkheron@metrotimes.com

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