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I know MIT is involved in the DARPA challenge and this year it's urban, making it a little more realistic and difficult than driving in a desert situation. But do you really think that the autonomous car is commercially viable? Will people be willing, at 60 miles per hour, to give up control and trust a robot?
Brooks: I think that willingness to give up control is going to be slow. The car companies aren't saying, 'let's build an autonomous car right now.' They're saying, 'let's build aids.' I think gradually over time people would become more accustomed to this and we'll see gradual shifts.
You are the director here of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. You are also the CTO of iRobot. How do you balance your responsibility to deliver marketable products and make (iRobot) a profit with your responsibilities here (at MIT)?
Brooks: We started the company in 1990. Pretty soon after that, I stopped all work on mobile robots at MIT and started working on humanoid robots, so that my students here working on their theses wouldn't think that I was sort of subconsciously directing them toward stuff that was going to help iRobot. So, I tried to separate those two in that way.
Do you favor wheeled robots or bipedal robots?
Brooks: We have built our environment for dynamically balancing taller, skinnier things with arms that can reach up and down. So in that sense, and Honda and Toyota have argued this, it may make sense to have bipedal robots because they are sort of compatible with what we are in our environment. On the other hand...I don't want one of (those walking robots) in my house at this point. So, we are a long way from...
From Asimo doing the dishes?
Brooks: Yes. You know a lot of what you see in various corporate videos of their robots are really nice videos, but then they imply that the robot is a lot more capable of deciding for itself what to do than it may really be.
Where is the most interesting work being done?
Brooks: At iRobot, robustness on the military side. You want something that can fall 10 meters down a cliff and then still get up and keep walking. On the home robot side, how do you get performance at low cost so that people are satisfied? Here, I'm much more interested in the four problems and making progress on them.
You know, the rational expectation might be that price is roughly corresponding to the level of autonomy. The reality is exactly the opposite. The more expensive a robot, the more people want to be in the loop to make sure nothing goes wrong.
What do you think are the greatest achievements in AI right now?
Brooks: I think our whole lives are surrounded by artificial intelligence, but we don't think of it that way. Google--you know, all the techniques that Google uses.
You mean the search algorithms?
Brooks: The search, all those sorts of things are cool artificial intelligence and Google, you know, uses statistical machine learning running it. It sucks up AI researchers like crazy, and it's full of AI researchers at all levels. It's a big applied artificial intelligence set of platforms and, apart from my parents-in-law, I don't know anyone who doesn't use Google on a daily basis.
From your years of study of AI, what have you learned about humanity?
Brooks: The work in my group with socially interacting robots has certainly given me insight into humans and a new level of disrespect. Just look how easy it was to get social interaction happening with humans--Kismet interacting with naive people and people responding to it, talking to it, nodding. And by the way, we have a lot of social interaction with our dogs. So it's not just that we talk with our human method with our robots; we do it with all sorts of animals...and it makes evolutionary sense for us to have ways of understanding other beings. And so I guess it was a surprise to me that a few simple cues will trigger that.
You've said that "the coming robotics revolution will change the fundamental nature of society." Generally, in what ways will it change?
Brooks: I think communication technology has changed expectations of how connected we are. I've got four kids ranging in age from 19 to 23, and even in that span of time I can see a change in the forms of communication. The 19-year-old doesn't do e-mails but uses (a social-networking site) and SMS. The 23-year-old uses much more e-mail, a cell phone, but never SMS.
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