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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For the most part, though, the intelligence I perceived in Einstein—its intense eye contact, its articulate soliloquies—was an illusion. Its answers to questions were canned and its interpretive powers were extremely limited. In short, Einstein is no Einstein. Overall, robots can do amazing things—play the violin, dismantle bombs, fire missiles, diagnose diseases, tend tomato plants, dance—but they sorely lack the basics. They recite jokes but don't get them. They can't summarize a movie. They can't tie their shoelaces. Because of such shortcomings, whenever we encounter them in the flesh, or Frubber, as it were, they are bound to disappoint.

Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. computer scientist who masterminded a series of robotics innovations in the 1990s, said recently that for a robot to have truly humanlike intelligence, it would need the object-recognition skills of a 2-year-old child, the language capabilities of a 4-year-old, the manual dexterity of a 6-year-old and the social understanding of an 8-year-old. Experts say they are far from reaching those goals. In fact, the problems that now confound robot programmers are puzzles that human infants often solve before their first birthday. How to reach for an object. How to identify a few individuals. How to tell a stuffed animal from a bottle of formula. In babies, these skills are not preprogrammed, as were the perceptual and conversational tricks Einstein showed me, but rather are cultivated through interactions with people and the environment.

But what if a robot could develop that way? What if a machine could learn like a child, as it goes along? Armed with a nearly $3 million National Science Foundation grant, Movellan is now tackling that very question, leading a team of cognitive scientists, engineers, developmental psychologists and roboticists from UCSD and beyond. Their experiment—called Project One, because it focuses on the first year of development—is a wildly ambitious effort to crack the secrets of human intelligence. It involves, their grant proposal says, "an integrated system...whose sensors and actuators approximate the levels of complexity of human infants."

In other words, a baby robot.

The word "Robot" hit the world stage in 1921, in the Czech science fiction writer Karel Capek's play Rossum's Universal Robots, about a factory that creates artificial people. The root is the Czech robota, for serf labor or drudgery. Broadly understood, a robot is a machine that can be programmed to interact with its surroundings, usually to do physical work.

We may associate robots with artificial intelligence, which uses powerful computers to solve big problems, but robots are not usually designed with such lofty aspirations; we might dream of Rosie, the chatty robot housekeeper on "The Jetsons," but for now we're stuck with Roomba, the disk-shaped, commercially available autonomous vacuum cleaner. The first industrial robot, called Unimate, was installed in a General Motors factory in 1961 to stack hot pieces of metal from a die-casting machine. Today, most of the world's estimated 6.5 million robots perform similarly mundane industrial jobs or domestic chores, though 2 million plug away at more whimsical tasks, like mixing cocktails. "Does [the robot] prepare the drink with style or dramatic flair?" ask the judging guidelines for the annual RoboGames bartending competition, held in San Francisco this summer. "Can it prepare more than a martini?"

Now imagine a bartender robot that could waggle its eyebrows sympathetically as you pour out the story of your messy divorce. Increasingly, the labor we want from robots involves social fluency, conversational skill and a convincing humanlike presence. Such machines, known as social robots, are on the horizon in health care, law enforcement, child care and entertainment, where they might work in concert with other robots and human supervisors. Someday, they might assist the blind; they've already coached dieters in an experiment in Boston. The South Korean government has said it aims to have a robot working in every home by 2020.

Part of the new emphasis on social functioning reflects the changing economies of the richest nations, where manufacturing has declined and service industries are increasingly important. Not coincidentally, societies with low birthrates and long life expectancies, notably Japan, are pushing hardest for social robots, which may be called upon to stand in for young people and perform a wide variety of jobs, including caring for and comforting the old.

Some scientists working on social robots, like Movellan and his team, borrow readily from developmental psychology. A machine might acquire skills as a human child does by starting with a few basic tasks and gradually constructing a more sophisticated competence—"bootstrapping," in scientific parlance. In contrast to preprogramming a robot to perform a fixed set of actions, endowing a robot computer with the capacity to acquire skills gradually in response to the environment might produce smarter, more human robots.

"If you want to build an intelligent system, you have to build a system that becomes intelligent," says Giulio Sandini, a bioengineer specializing in social robots at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. "Intelligence is not only what you know but how you learn more from what you know. Intelligence is acquiring information, a dynamic process."


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