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.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
8 min read
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 DIY robot recipes 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 News.com 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 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.

So what technology do you think needs to be perfected before a humanoid robot like C3PO becomes a reality?
Mason: The easiest way is to put a human in a machine.

You mean use the human machine as a model?
Mason: No, I meant literally. I was joking. Oh, you mean without the human?

It's interesting. What was the name of the planet where R2D2 goes?

The Ewok planet?
Mason: No. Where he goes with Luke to the jungle, the swamp to see Yoda?

Tatooine? No...(Correct answer is actually Dagobah.)
Mason: Well, anyway, you see R2D2 following Luke and Yoda is leading them back to his tree stump. You're looking at R2D2 and wondering how he's navigating this forest floor with vines and everything with those little wheels. I don't think there is any technology that can handle that well yet. C3PO is more plausible because he's based on a human chassis.

The one thing we learn over and over in robotics is everything is much harder than anyone thought. We thought chess would be a great challenge for AI and now we have chess machines that can beat every human, or almost every human. Turns out, building a machine that can manipulate the chess pieces as effective as a human is way harder. I mean, sure, we can build them for a specific set of pieces and a specific chess board, but not where you can show up with any chess board and it can take the pieces and sort them out and start playing.

Ultimately we've discovered that mopping a floor is harder than playing chess. I guess that means janitors are as intelligent as anyone else. The distinction between them and anyone else is negligible.

We think origami will be for manipulation what robot soccer is for mobile robots: a great challenge task that can inspire and challenge researchers for the next 50 years.

What do you see as a less popular or unexplored area that you would like to see more research done in?
Mason: Theoretical underpinnings. It's easy to motivate research when it's close to application and when it's close to a machine. Machines are inspirational. You see a machine and right away, not knowing what it can do, you project capabilities they don't even have. It's much more difficult to attract funding for longer range research. Ultimately the impact might be as great because it can apply more broadly across different types of robots.

What's the biggest AI achievement so far?
Mason: One of the really exciting things going on right now is the development of statistical methods, machine learning techniques especially in robotics. But that's one among many. I'm trying to think of what else.

Well, what's the most interesting work being done at CMU?
Mason: Hmm. That's really hard to say. There are a lot of interesting things. One of them is an image understanding system, being offered on the Web as Fotowoosh. You give it a picture and it gives you back a virtual reality three-dimensional structure that you can fly through. It can figure out the image...I've seen it work for street scenes and seascapes and outdoor things.

CMU is in this year's DARPA challenge and it's going to be in an urban setting instead of the dessert like before. It seems like that would be more difficult.
Mason: With the DARPA challenge, the first year was very challenging. But it's hard to do a comparison because we are now taking back machines that are radically better. But the urban grand challenge is definitely more interesting and challenging in that you are dealing with other vehicles.

You know. I think another one of our most interesting things is with origami.

OK. So, tell me about the origami robot. What sorts of practical applications do you see that type of technology eventually having?
Mason: What do you mean? We did it 'cause we really love origami. Come on, don't you envision them in every mall in America making 1,000 cranes a minute?

I'm only kidding. We do it 'cause we're interested in the principles and so far the most automatic program research in robotics manipulation does harder things. Literally you have it easier to manipulate hard things than soft things like paper. And so, for us, extended out planning algorithms for paper was a challenge. We think origami will be for manipulation what robot soccer is for mobile robots: a great challenge task that can inspire and challenge researchers for the next 50 years.