Roboticist inspired by more than machines

Robotics Institute Director Matt Mason wants people to be inspired by science fiction, origami and research beyond the machine.

BOSTON--Carnegie Mellon University is becoming to robots what Cooperstown is to baseball.

Aside from its Robot Hall of Fame, CMU has unique outreach projects to engage mainstream America with robots. It has hosted RoboCup, a global soccer tournament played by robots, and most recently released that allow anyone to make robots from off-the-shelf parts through its Terk program. The people behind CMU's unique Robotics Institute have also become a hot topic for analysis since the release of a nonfiction book about them by Lee Gutkind.

On Tuesday, Matt Mason, the director of the Robotics Institute at CMU announced the 2007 inductees into the Robot Hall of Fame. The honor, which is judged by a jury of both leading science and science fiction experts, was created in April 2003 to call attention to the contributions robots and their creators make to society.

Mason is known for his work on the mechanics of robot manipulation and has written four books on the topic. He spent some time with CNET from the great glass hall of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston during RoboBusiness 2007.

Q: You said at that ceremony for the Robot Hall of Fame induction that this is the first time real robots have outnumbered fictional robots as inductees and that this may be a sign you are finally fulfilling expectations? Can you explain what you meant by that?
Mason: Expectations might be a little high, matching excitement level sounds right. Fulfilling expectations, I don't know if that will ever happen. Some people expect that they will be able to eventually download their brain into a machine and dispose of the messy organic body and live in the computer.

What about this dichotomy between real life robots and science fiction. Does it make your job harder?
Mason: It makes it, the job, great because the people that write those books are really great visionary, deep thinkers and they're thinking ahead about how technology might develop and what the implications might be. So, it's a great reference for us.

Last year the Robotics Institute came out with id="">Ballbot. Is that CMU's answer to the legs versus wheels debate?
Mason: Certainly not an answer, but an interesting new entry in the debate. Wheels are cool. Legs are cool. I think probably the future will include both wheels and legs. What we didn't realize, or what we hadn't considered, was whether it might also include balls. This isn't the first time Ralph Hollis has broken radical new ground. His original robot, Newt, was the first mobile robot that was autonomous and had a computer. It did have an onboard computer. Prior to that they had a little of bit of logic, but the first truly autonomous was Newt. I think of Ralph as the father of the autonomous robot.

What sets the Robotics institute at CMU apart from other robotics groups?
Mason: I'm not sure who to compare it to. It is a university department. We have tenure track faculty and a Ph.D. program, but its research effort is ten times larger than its educational effort. Most of the impact that you see is coming from research projects. Sponsored research is about in excess of $50 million a year.

Some people expect that they will be able to eventually download their brain into a machine and dispose of the messy organic body and live in the computer.

It started as a research institute and then it became an academic department, but it's still first and foremost a research institute and one sign of that is in its growth. We started at $1 million and now we are at $50 million and it doubles in size every six or seven years, not something you see at most university departments. We have a very entrepreneurial group of people.

Are there a lot of Ph.D. students who then go out on their own and start companies from what they've done?
Mason: There are a lot of spin-offs. We are very aggressive at creating new centers. Illah Nourbakhsh's Center for Innovative Robotics finally got some new space. And we also got some new funding from Microsoft for that. Hopefully it will grow and thrive. There's Robot City two miles south of the main campus. We also have the Quality of Life Center.

Some people may not realize what you mean by "quality of life." Can you explain what the Quality of Life Technology Center is about?
Mason: It focuses on robots helping people especially rehabilitation, elder care, health monitoring. We're in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and it's sponsored by the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.

They say that as the baby boomers get older and we have this large population of elderly, we are going to need robots to help us be more productive and care for the elderly. Do you agree that that is likely to happen?
Mason: I think it's inevitable...but essentially wonderful. It will be great.

In Japan they talk about having companion robots for the elderly. Do you see something like that happening in America?
Mason: The companion robot is one of the more intriguing concepts. I think that sometimes we see that as the nightmare scenario. That it means we'll be cut off from human companionship and have to get comfort from our machines. So when someone says that, it can be surprising, and yet maybe it could be a good thing.

Most people only think of humanoid robots, robots that look and talk like humans, as robots. What makes a robot a robot in your eyes?
Mason: I started in industrial robotics. I have a very broad idea of what a robot is, especially if you're interested in robotics research you are interested in the principles that might be applied across a lot of domains. Machine perception, you might end up working on technology that would be deployed on the Internet to search for images. We may not think of that as robotics technology, but it is. That and AI is endlessly fascinating.

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