July 20, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Newsmaker: Divining AI, and the future of consumer roboticsSee all Newsmakers
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I think taking that point to the extreme is the Sony Aibo, which I think intentionally had no purpose whatsoever. I mean, that robot had no purpose. You could not argue that this robot had a practical purpose that we couldn't do as well before. And I think Sony very cleverly stayed away from giving the dog a single purpose. It was...for entertainment, and to fascinate you and to (get people to) talk about adding to the dimension of human experience. What's great about robotics is that people have these wonderful experiences interacting with robots that they wouldn't have with a dishwasher.
How important is it for consumer robots to look and act like the consumers who buy them?
Thrun: I think no one knows at this point. And there have been many different directions in robotics. Some people humanize a robot in the hopes that the closer it is to a person, the more interesting it is. Another is just the opposite. For example, when I talk of the self-driving car, I think of the car as complimenting people. The last thing I want is something that replicates the person, or something the person is already strong in. If it is not even a recognizable robot in the science-fiction sense that's fine.
I think eventually we have to see whether there is a very strong desire to replicate human behavior and human looks and (whether we) feel (that will) really serve us well. Sometimes I don't want a machine that's smart and thinks for me; I need a machine that's really reliable and does the same thing predictably. The Microsoft paper clip, for example, was more of an annoyance to me than anything. So there is a fine line to be walked, and, like I said, no one knows yet. In the next 10 or 15 years we will find out whether, for example, an elderly person would be more accepting of a humanoid robot as a companion, or a robotic wheelchair or robotic walker that doesn't look like a human but provides specific functions.
Microsoft has launched a new robotics research group and its first-ever robotics software, Microsoft Robotics Studio, a Windows-based toolkit designed to let commercial and individual developers create intelligent applications for a range of products. What kind of impact will Microsoft's entry into robotics have on the field?
Thrun: I think there is a really good chance that this will significantly advance the field.... Like most technologies, a number of things have to come together. There has to be the right technology. There also has to be the right perception in the public and the right public support. Robotics has always been on the back burner for corporations. This might be the first time or second time that a large corporation takes robotics seriously. I have talked a lot to Microsoft. I think that what they have is a good first step, but I think they need to streamline the product and build up the people who use it: in the classroom, among hobbyists, the nonscientists and so on. Many of the things that Microsoft has done with this product are really, really good, really well chosen. So I am very hopeful that this is going to have a positive impact on the field.
What effect will the release of programmable robots, like Lego's Mindstorms NXT, have on the consumer robotics market?
Thrun: I think the hobbyist programmable robot is fantastic in that it opens robotics to a huge number of young people who will think differently about technology. I think of robotics often as (being like) the personal computer before the invention of VisiCalc. (VisiCalc) was bought by enthusiasts that didn't really have a purpose for it but were fascinated by the technology. The same is true for Lego Mindstorms right now. In the computer sector it's completely obvious that 95 percent of the interesting ideas came out after VisiCalc. It really changed the field. Word processing, networking and so on. All these things came much, much later. When we speculate about what robots can do, it is predictable that we will invent fantastic, great ways in terms of household that no one thinks about right now. And I think Lego Mindstorms will really help with that.
Do you think it's part of your job as a guiding force in robotics to choose to develop projects that could be beneficial to society instead of things that are of particular interest to you as an intellectual?
Thrun: To me the intersection of what's interesting for society and what's interesting to me is almost 100 percent. I see my mission as a scientist to advance society. So if I were to engage in something that was of no interest to society but would be interesting in its own right, I would not be interested in it. One of the things I am driven by is that I think robotics is incredibly young. We are like in the 16th century of robotics right now. And computer science is young--maybe in the 17th century. Society is so rapidly changing with these new technologies, all my work focus is on making the changes go in a positive way.
How many years away are we from a fully realized version of PEARL--a personal robotic assistant for the elderly that you worked on while at Carnegie Mellon?
Thrun: Oh that's a hard question. I have a much better handle for cars. Realistically, PEARL was much more of an explorative project where we tried to understand what needs exist for the elderly. In exposing ourselves to nursing environments, we learned more about what the actual needs were. For example, one of the offspring technologies out of PEARL was a robotic walker that is still being tested right now near a facility in Pittsburgh, Pa. That robot did not look like PEARL at all, it was much more of a mechanic device that provided guidance to people and could drive itself out of the way if it was in the way. These specialty devices have a much better chance in the next five or six years. A general-purpose kind of humanoid robot is 15 years or so away.
Only 15 years?
Thrun: Or 20. I mean, technology has been accelerating amazingly fast in recent years, and given the money that has been put into it.... Almost all the interesting humanoid stuff came along in the last five years. But my fear with the current wave of humanoid robotics is that I don't think we have a good story as to why they are really useful to a lot of people. We are still in the phase of exploration and playing with them to see what happens. As long as we don't find a concrete use, there is the question. Do we find an answer? Do we say this is really useful? Once we find this, then I think the technology will come along in maybe 10 years or so.
Thrun: So, there're two views of AI that are different. I adhere more to the second view. The fist view is that AI is about human intelligence and about a universal machine. And I think that is a fantastic goal. It's a goal that well might be 200 years old. The second goal is to be at the forefront of information technology. For example, turning data into information, making sense out of the Web, which to some extent Google has achieved, making sense out of the genome and making sense out of robotic data.... So, I agree with my colleague John that there should be more activities in play to try to understand common sense, but I think there are many other worthy goals in artificial intelligence today. If Google, for example, had waited until they understood, say, common-sense knowledge, you would never have seen Google. And Google is a, what, multibillion dollar company at this point?
In my lab--of which I guess John is now a member-- we have a very liberal definition of artificial intelligence. And we believe that AI has been vastly successful. Almost everything people do with computers involves AI today. Google is just one data point out of many. If you go shopping at Amazon, some AI program finds out what your interests are and presents results for you. If you pick up a telephone, some AI program figures out data for you so that your voice is more crisp on the other end. There are endless uses since the start of AI.
Do you think the abundance of labor in terms of agriculture, manufacturing and domestic help has deterred corporate enterprises from being more interested in developing these types of robots?
Thrun: That's a good question. I think to the extent that you build robots that compete with people, you are in a very different business, because people are by and large not just very skilled, but very cheap. If you think of outsourcing labor, many of the visions of these (types of machines) fail under the simple effect that people are just better and cheaper. Although, if you look at past developing robots, you see that there is such a drop in prices that at some point there will be an inversion where mechanical labor will be cheaper than human labor, especially in places like the United States. That's the replacement vision. There is also the augmentation vision.
Can we build robots that are more effective? When I think to build a self-driving car, I don't think to replace people--I hope to make people more effective. And there the economics are different. There you can really think of robotic technology that goes out and does cool stuff. Sometimes people call softbots robots--things that go on the Web and spider the Web. That's a good example of a completely new thing that robots/softbots can do that completely compliments people's abilities and enables them to do something much stronger and entirely different.
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