Sizing up the coming robotics revolution

Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's CSAIL and CTO of iRobot, discusses AI, robots and the coming bicentennial man. Photos: Humanoid robots come to life at MIT

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--When it comes to robots, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab is one of the places in the world where the magic happens.

Rodney Brooks is the Panasonic professor of robotics at MIT and the director of CSAIL. He is also the co-founder and chief technology officer of iRobot and one of the principal architects of iRobot's Roomba vacuum.

On Tuesday, RoboBusiness 2007, an international conference showcasing consumer, commercial and military robots, will convene in Boston. To gain insight on what's in the pipeline, CNET sat down with Brooks, one of the leading experts on robots and artificial intelligence.

From his office at CSAIL, Brooks shared his thoughts on the best AI readily available today and the four things it will take for the magicians of science to match science fiction fantasies.

Q: As a kid who watched Star Wars and reruns of The Jetsons, I was convinced that when I grew up, I'd have a robot. Now I have a home of my own, and the closest thing to Rosie or R2-D2 is your Roomba. What do you say about this dichotomy between the high expectations that have been raised by fiction and the reality of consumer robotics?
Brooks: Well, at least we got part of the way. If it wasn't for the Roomba, we wouldn't be there at all and we'd be really disappointed. You may notice you don't have a flying car either.

I think everyone misjudged how some things work, and I normally talk about it in terms of the founders of artificial intelligence, who just had their 50th anniversary last year for 1956. In 1966, they set a summer project to solve the vision problem and they put an undergraduate in charge of it...a young undergraduate put in charge of object recognition!

And that's what Rosie needs. Not only object recognition, but categorization, form, function, all sorts of things which we're way, way away from being able to do in artificial intelligence.

MIT's Domo and iRobot's Roomba are vastly different, yet both are considered robots. What makes a robot a robot?
Brooks: To me what makes a robot a robot, and as with every definition you can poke it enough until it breaks, but for me it's something that senses the world in some way, does some sort of computation, deciding what to do, and then acts on the world outside itself as a result.

What other technology needs to be perfected before a Domo can become a relatively affordable, artificially intelligent majordomo for the house?
Brooks: That is not where the name came from by the way.

I know. Domo arigato.
Brooks: Yeah, (laughs) which is really hard to explain to Japanese visitors. Anyway, I can say there are four research topics that, as we make progress on each one, will enable our robots to do a lot more, and so I have set these goals: the object recognition capabilities of a 2-year-old child, the language understanding of a 4-year-old.

What do you mean by that?
Brooks: They can do conditionals, recognize different accents, words in noisy environments. As an adult talking to a 4-year-old, we may dumb down the vocabulary, but we don't dumb down the syntax. We have clauses and stuff like that, so I think it's pretty reasonable that we could talk to our robots like that.

The third target is the manual dexterity of a 6-year-old. Roughly speaking, a 6-year-old is capable of every manual task a worker in a Chinese factory building goods for Wal-Mart can do and, maybe not at the same strength level, most operations an agriculture worker does.

And fourth?
Brooks: The social understanding of an 8-year-old child--knowing the difference between what you say and your actual intent, all those things that make us human.

How close are you to each of these four objectives? How many years away do you think?
Brooks: Ah. You must be a reporter. I'll never answer that, because, you know, in 1966 they thought it was going to be three months for the object recognition.

Are robots going to be a big-ticket item like the family car where you invest in one that suits your needs, it comes with a warranty, and when it breaks you take it to a mechanic?
Brooks: First off, our cars are going to get more robotic, and we are starting to see that already: The high-end Lexus self-parking, automatic lane changing, staying at a fixed distance from another car. That's going to continue, because these are safety issues, and the Japanese car manufacturers in particular and the Germans want safety.

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