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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"This is the brains!" Movellan shouted over the din of cyclone-strength air conditioners. He was pointing at a stack of computers about ten feet tall and six feet deep, sporting dozens of blinking blue lights and a single ominous orange one. Because the Project One robot's metal cranium will not be able to hold all the information-processing hardware that it will need, the robot will be connected by fiber-optic cables to these computers in the basement of a building on the UCSD campus in La Jolla. The room, filled with towering computers that would overheat if the space weren't kept as cold as a meat locker, looks like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As Einstein could tell you, Movellan is over 40, bespectacled and beardless. But Einstein has no way of knowing that Movellan has bright eyes and a bulky chin, is the adoring father of an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son and speaks English with an accent reflecting his Spanish origins.

Movellan grew up amid the wheat fields of Palencia, Spain, the son of an apple farmer. Surrounded by animals, he spent endless hours wondering how their minds worked. "I asked my mother, 'Do dogs think? Do rats think?'" he says. "I was fascinated by things that think but have no language."

He also acquired a farm boy's knack for working with his hands; he recalls that his grandmother scolded him for dissecting her kitchen appliances. Enamored of the nameless robot from the 1960s television show "Lost in Space," he built his first humanoid when he was about 10, using "food cans, light bulbs and a tape recorder," he says. The robot, which had a money slot, would demand the equivalent of $100. As Movellan anticipated, people usually forked over much less. "That's not $100!" the robot's prerecorded voice would bellow. Ever the mischievous tinkerer, he drew fire 30 years later from his La Jolla homeowners association for welding robots in his garage.

He got his PhD in developmental psychology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1989 and moved on to Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, to conduct artificial intelligence research. "The people I knew were not really working on social robots," he says. "They were working on vehicles to go to Mars. It didn't really appeal to me. I always felt robotics and psychology should be more together than they originally were." It was after he went to UCSD in 1992 that he began working on replicating human senses in machines.

A turning point came in 2002, when he was living with his family in Kyoto, Japan, and working in a government robotics lab to program a long-armed social robot named Robovie. He hadn't yet had much exposure to the latest social robots and initially found them somewhat annoying. "They would say things like, 'I'm lonely, please hug me,'" Movellan recalls. But the Japanese scientists warned him that Robovie was special. "They would say, 'you'll feel something.' Well, I dismissed it—until I felt something. The robot kept talking to me. The robot looked up at me and, for a moment, I swear this robot was alive."

Then Robovie enfolded him in a hug and suddenly—"magic," says Movellan. "This is something I was unprepared for from a scientific point of view. This intense feeling caught me off guard. I thought, Why is my brain put together so that this machine got me? Magic is when the robot is looking at things and you reflexively want to look in the same direction as the robot. When the robot is looking at you instead of through you. It's a feeling that comes and goes. We don't know how to make it happen. But we have all the ingredients to make it happen."

Eager to understand this curious reaction, Movellan introduced Robovie to his 2-year-old son's preschool class. But there the robot cast a different spell. "It was a big disaster," Movellan remembers, shaking his head. "It was horrible. It was one of the worst days of my life." The toddlers were terrified of Robovie, who was about the size of a 12-year-old. They ran away from it screaming.

That night, his son had a nightmare. Movellan heard him muttering Japanese in his sleep: "Kowai, kowai." Scary, scary.

Back in California, Movellan assembled, in consultation with his son, a kid-friendly robot named RUBI that was more appropriate for visits to toddler classrooms. It was an early version of the smiling little machine that stands sentinel in the laboratory today, wearing a jaunty orange Harley-Davidson bandanna and New Balance sneakers, its head swiveling in an inquisitive manner. It has coasters for eyes and a metal briefcase for a body that snaps open to reveal a bellyful of motors and wires.


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