Robot Babies

Can scientists build a machine that learns as it goes and plays well with others?

Building a robot that humans can love is pretty ambitious. But Javier Movellan (in his San Diego lab with RUBI) says he would like to develop a robot that loves humans. (Timothy Archibald)
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Perhaps the team's grandest goal is to give the robot the capacity to signal for a caregiver to retrieve an object beyond its grasp. Movellan calls this the "Vygotsky reach," after developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who identified the movement—which typically occurs when a child is about a year old—as an intellectual breakthrough, a transition from simple sensory-motor intelligence to symbolic intelligence. If the scientists are successful, it will be the first spontaneous symbolic gesture by a robot. It will also be a curious role reversal—the robot commanding the human, instead of vice versa.

"That's a pretty important transition," says Jonathan Plucker, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University who studies human intelligence and creativity. Plucker had no prior knowledge of Project One and its goals, but he was fresh from watching the season finale of "Battlestar Galactica," which had left him leery of the quest to build intelligent robots. "My sense is that it wouldn't be hard to have a robot that reaches for certain types of objects," he says, "but it's a big leap to have a machine that realizes it wants to reach for something and uses another object, a caregiver, as a tool. That is a much, much more complex psychological process."

At present, the Project One robot is all brains. While the big computer hums in its air-conditioned cavern, the body is being designed and assembled in a factory in Japan.

Construction is expected to take about nine months.

A prototype of the Project One robot body already exists, in the Osaka laboratory of Hiroshi Ishiguro, the legendary Japanese roboticist who, in addition to creating Robovie, fashioned a robotic double of himself, named Geminoid, as well as a mechanical twin of his 4-year-old daughter, which he calls "my daughter's copy." ("My daughter didn't like my daughter's copy," he told me over the phone. "Its movement was very like a zombie." Upon seeing it, his daughter—the original—cried.) Ishiguro's baby robot is called the Child-Robot with Biomimetic Body, or CB2 for short. If you search for "creepy robot baby" on YouTube, you can see clips of four-foot-tall CB2 in action. Its silicone skin has a grayish cast; its blank, black eyes dart back and forth. When first unveiled in 2007, it could do little more than writhe, albeit in a very babylike way, and make pathetic vowel sounds out of the tube of silicone that is its throat.

"It has this ghostly gaze," says Ian Fasel, a University of Arizona computer scientist and a former student of Movellan's who has worked on the Japanese project. "My friends who see it tell me to please put it out of its misery. It was often lying on the floor of the lab, flopping around. It gives you this feeling that it's struggling to be a real boy, but it doesn't know how."

When Movellan first saw CB2, last fall, as he was shopping around for a Project One body, he was dismayed by the lack of progress the Japanese scientists had made in getting it to move in a purposeful way. "My first impression was that there was no way we would choose that robot," Movellan recalls. "Maybe this robot is impossible to control. If you were God himself, could you control it?"

Still, he couldn't deny that the CB2 was an exquisite piece of engineering. There have been other explicitly childlike robots over the years—creations such as Babybot and Infanoid—but none approach CB2's level of realism. Its skin is packed with sensors to collect data. Its metal skeleton and piston-driven muscles are limber, like a person's, not stiff like most robots', and highly interconnected: if an arm moves, motors in the torso and elsewhere respond. In the end, Movellan chose CB2.

The body's human-ness would help the scientists develop more brainlike software, Movellan decided. "We could have chosen a robot that could already do a lot of the things we want it to do—use a standard robotic arm, for instance," Movellan says. "Yet we felt it was a good experiment in learning to control a more biologically inspired body that approximates how muscles work. Starting with an arm more like a real arm is going to teach us more."

The Project One team has requested tweaks in CB2's design, to build in more powerful muscles that Movellan hopes will give it the strength to walk on its own, which the Japanese scientists—who are busy developing a new model of their own—now realize the first CB2 will never do. Movellan is also doing away with the skin suit, which sometimes provides muddled readings, opting instead for a Terminator-like metal skeleton encased in clear plastic. ("You can always put clothes on," Movellan reasons.) He had hoped to make the robot small enough to cradle, but the Japanese designers told him that is currently impossible. The baby will arrive standing about three feet tall and weighing 150 pounds.


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