BY Joe Laniado in Profiles | 05 MAY 01
Featured in
Issue 59

Making New Friends

Roboticists don't get out much

BY Joe Laniado in Profiles | 05 MAY 01

All over the world there are thousands of people tinkering with robots. Not the radio-controlled boys' toys made for televisual destruction but autonomous machines designed to perform specific tasks. There are wheeled robots, eight-legged robots, robot dogs and a variety of robot fish, whose sole task is to swim about without bashing into things.

The most noble pursuit for a roboticist is the construction of androids. Unfortunately, walking on two legs is an extremely complex activity that has required immense efforts to achieve. The first anthropomorphic robot to perform this apparently simple task was built in 1973, but it was not until 1996, when Honda unveiled the P1, that an independent robot was able to achieve the bi-pedal holy grail of climbing the stairs. This marvel cost more than $100 million, took 200 man-years to build and has a battery life of 15 minutes. Honda's latest offerings - the P3 and ASIMO - are the first working autonomous robots to resemble everyone's movie-inspired image of a man in a cardboard suit. As yet, however, they can achieve very little; not surprising really, since they are attempts to replicate a being that took 150 million years to evolve.

The fundamental problem is how to provide robots both with senses through which to perceive the world and the mechanism (intelligence) to translate these perceptions into useful information. To tell a robot how to do everything through programming is endless and laborious; the solution is to give it learning strategies to work out appropriate behaviour. So far, however, though robots have the theoretical ability to learn everything, in practice they learn almost nothing (although most humans seem to have a similar problem).

There are almost 30 major android projects around the world, mostly backed by governments, universities or corporations. The only British bi-pedal robot, built by the Shadow Robot Company for relatively little money, is in a league of its own. Made largely out of maple wood and rubber, the Shadow Walker has 'air muscles' instead of motors. It's a beautifully simple concept: rubber tubes wrapped in a plastic weave contract in length when filled with air. As a result, the robot looks more like a medieval puppet than a cutting-edge research vehicle. Nevertheless it has taken two steps along the road to its creators' ultimate goal of building a robot able to make lasagne.

The word 'robot' comes from the Czech term for forced labour and most reasons for creating automata are variations on the theme of creating a sophisticated domestic help. This leads to an idea of a technological Utopia, where everything dull is done by robots, leaving humans to pursue other, less dull activities - such as building facsimiles of rare deep sea fish. Mitsubishi's robot coelacanth is incredibly lifelike (apart from having to plug itself into the mains every 30 minutes) but all it has to do is appear fishy. This is doubtless a great achievement but real androids are going to have to be able to peel a mango - now that would be useful.