Let’s assume that someday you will have, in your home, a humanoid robot helper. The robot, because it’s shaped like you, can use your tools and move easily around your house. It folds the laundry, it helps your elderly mother up the stairs, and on Sundays it makes brunch for the family. It’s capable of handling almost any household chore you can throw at it.
Now let’s imagine that you’re out on the lawn, kicking a ball around with your son. Your robot helper is in another part of the yard, its back to you both, fixing a drainpipe. Your son misses a kick, and the ball winds up a few feet from the robot. “Hey, robot!” you shout. “A little help?” The robot turns in place, spots the ball, walks over, and kicks it back to you. The game resumes.
Of all the tasks you would undoubtedly love to hand off to a robot assistant, fetching a soccer ball is probably low on the list. And yet in 2010, there is no humanoid robot on Earth that can consistently do something as simple as turn, spot, approach, and kick. Never mind helping Grandma to bed or starching your shirts. Broken into a daisy chain of input, calculation and action, just kicking a ball is incredibly hard. It’s so difficult, in fact, that engineers from all over the world have embraced it as the modern era’s standardized test of humanoid-robot sophistication, and they converge each June at an event called RoboCup to try it. This year, only one adult-size, self-contained, humanoid robot in this country can even attempt it.
Its name is CHARLI-L (the “L” stands for “Lightweight” and the rest for “Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence”). Created at Virginia Tech, it’s America’s first true humanoid, in that it requires no remote power source or computer, it stands roughly five feet tall and has arms and legs, and it walks—left, right, left, right—like a human.
As such, CHARLI-L belongs to an exclusive international club of humanoid robots (see an illustrated overview of said club here), each of them designed to hasten the day when robots play a central role in all of our lives. Japan and South Korea dominate this club, together outspending the U.S. in civilian robotics many times over. Japan’s Asimo, a humanoid first built in 1986 by the Honda Corporation and now in its 12th generation, and Korea’s Hubo, built to compete with Asimo in 2004 by Jun-Ho Oh of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), are the pride of their nations. Honda is said to have put $300 million and more than 100 worker-years into the first Asimo. Dennis Hong, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at VT, laughs at the idea. “That guy,” he says, pointing at CHARLI-L, “was 12 undergrad and grad students in a year and a half, with seed money of $20,000.”
Dennis Hong is the founder of VT’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory and the leader of the student team that built CHARLI-L. We’re seated at a workbench inside the University of Pennsylvania’s robotics lab, run by Hong’s friend and collaborator Daniel Lee. Hong’s students are here to show CHARLI-L to Lee’s students, to prepare for RoboCup 2010, held in June in Singapore, and to discuss upcoming partnerships. Hong (winner of a 2009 Popular Science Brilliant 10 award) and his students have produced chemically driven, amoeba-like robots; a spider-like ’bot called STRiDEr, whose swinging walk is modeled on the human gait; and a system by which blind adults can make guided yet independent decisions as the drivers of their own cars. Lee’s students build complex software to govern robot behavior and human-robot interaction. These are some of the most accomplished robotics engineers in the field. But as I watch the students fiddle with CHARLI-L, it begins to dawn on me how much work stands between CHARLI-L and the RoboCup trophy, to say nothing of how much work it will take to reach a future full of robot helpers.
The sheer scale of the challenge is the point, Hong says. “I think a full-size humanoid is the Holy Grail of robotics,” he explains. “It’s a system of systems. It combines all the disciplines of robotics, from artificial intelligence to autonomous behavior to dynamics to controls to mechanical design—everything!”
At the moment, however, VT junior Taylor Pesek, Ph.D. student Jeakweon Han and master’s student Seungmoon Song are just trying to get CHARLI-L to stand upright. “Uh-oh,” Han says, catching the robot as it lolls forward, knees buckling. “Stop putting in commands,” Pesek says. “I’m not,” Song responds. Pesek turns the power off and on and, with a bit of wrestling, the robot stands at quiet attention.
If standing still is so difficult, how hard is kicking a ball? The rules of RoboCup, in which six teams will compete for the title of “Best Humanoid” in the Adult Size Humanoid division, require that the robot be facing away from the ball when the event begins, so the machine has to turn around and find it. “It’s a high-end academic exercise dressed up as an entertainment event,” Hong says. Break the goals—kicking balls at a target, basic dribbling, and trying to slowly block the very slow shots from other robots—into individual processes, and the to-do list grows very long. To eventually build the brunch-making ’bot of the future, Hong must first win RoboCup. And that’s hard. “Just getting it to turn around in place is ridiculous,” says master’s student and CHARLI-L team member Robert Nguyen. Is it also pointless?
Nearly everyone would want a dutiful, reliable robot helper, so why is there only one such humanoid made in this country? And why is it the work of a small team of unpaid students? To get at the answer, consider the machines in your life. Your dishwasher, your car, your DVR all serve a practical, well-defined purpose. Today’s humanoids, meanwhile, serve almost no practical function. “They represent incredible research and technology that’s then backed into an application” says Colin Angle, the CEO of iRobot, which makes domestic cleaning robots and military models. Roboticists working on humanoids, he says, “are doing amazing, exciting work, but it’s just not going to drive the robot industry—unless it’s for entertainment purposes.”
Asimo, the most sophisticated Japanese humanoid, is famous for its balance and adaptability. It can even run, in an awkward, distinctively robotic way. But if it encounters a closed door, the show’s over, because the calculations necessary to reach out, grasp the knob, turn it, and walk forward, pushing the door ahead of itself, are still too complicated. (The fragility doesn’t end there. “Our products can survive a two-story fall,” Angle says. “See what happens with an Asimo.”) Japan has embraced Asimo, however, as a broad, long-term investment in a wide range of scientific challenges, from materials science to artificial intelligence. It’s not a robo-butler. It’s a stake in the ground, a totem of Japan’s belief that our future will be full of helpful, sentient, Japanese-made machines.
That kind of open-ended vision doesn’t work here, where our funding environment rewards near-term products, not totems. As a result, the U.S., though it is filled with robotics projects, lags behind Japan and South Korea in the development of humanoids. In 2006, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and others, the nonprofit World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) published a report entitled “International Assessment of Research and Development in Robotics,” comparing America’s activities with the rest of the world’s. The report concluded that while this country leads the world in military and medical robotics, it is quickly losing that advantage and falls short when it comes to robot mobility and humanoid robotics. Although “robotics is a very active field, worldwide,” the authors wrote, “Japan, Korea and the European Community invest significantly larger funds in robotics research and development for the private sector than the U.S.”single page
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