Before Faith and I began this book I would have attributed the term Robo sapiens to a
science-fiction writer. I would have been amused, but would have scoffed especially hard
at those modifiers "vastly superior" and "dominant" in its
(admittedly. hypothetical) definition. I have been skeptical about technology's
undelivered promises ever since I began a career as a photojournalist, more than two
decades ago. More specifically, I am skeptical not about technology per se but about the
way societies misuse and misunderstand it. Nuclear power, for example, is a wonderful
technology that would have had a prominent place in any wise, far-seeing, and
incorruptible society. In the future, I hope to encounter such a society.
Pessimism about society's potential to misuse technology is nothing new. Czech writer
Karel Capek coined the term "robot" in a play he wrote in 1920 called
R.U.R.[first performed in 1923]. The play's dark plot revolves around a
factoryRossum's Universal Robots, the R.U.R. of the titlethat populates the
world with artificial slaves, meant to relieve humans of the drudgery of work. Built in
ever-increasing numbers and with expanding intelligence, they soon outnumber their human
masters, and then they are used as soldiers. Eventually, a robot revolt wipes out the
human race. It's interesting that the person who invented the modern concept of robots
predicted that they would destroy us all.
A year ago, when our friend Thomas Borchert, technology and science editor at Stern
magazine in Germany, asked me to document advances in robotics and artificial intelligence
around the world, I was eager to seek out the planet's most advanced machines and their
makers (he didn't mention any threat to the human race). My interestand my
skepticismincreased when I learned that roboticists were predicting that human
intelligence would soon be surpassed by machine intelligenceif not in the next
decade, then in the decade after.
How much was hype? Was there really a revolution in robotics, as the roboticists claimed?
I knew that robotics had not lived up to the dreams of its pioneers in the 1960s and
1970s. Today, years after robots were supposed to be on the streets and in our homes, the
machines are largely unseen. The only robots widely in use are computer-driven slaves
bolted to factory floors and laboratory benches. Knowing this, I did not expect to be
intellectually kidnapped by a robot. But then it happened, in Japan.
We were shooting a private demo of the Honda [P3]a robot that looks like an
astronaut in a white spacesuitat the car company's top-secret development center
outside Tokyo. (Yes, the Japanese automaker had quietly spent millions to build a bipedal
robot.) Watched proudly by a host of attendant technicians, the robot walked down a path
on its own two feet, opened a door, stepped through it, closed the door behind itself,
then gracefully climbed a flight of stairs. Was there a little man inside? No. Just
electric motors and electronics. We knew that the Honda humanoid was not
autonomousthat every step was programmedbut we were still amazed that a
machine could maneuver like a human.
At that time, we were nearly halfway through a month-long assignment. We had seen a number
of very advanced robots, but most worked haltingly, and some only after interminable
delays to load software or troubleshoot a fragile connection. No single machine had yet
captured our imagination enough to make us believe the glowing predictions of robotic
evolutionin fact, many machines were quite primitive beasts. But when we saw the
Honda humanoid's jaunty demo, we realized that with enough time and money, layers of
complexity could be added to any of the other nonhuman-looking robots as
wellupgrading them from clumsy class into the realm of smooth operators.
The Honda robot is not alone. As we learned more and saw more, we realized that twenty
years after their initial predictions, the futurists might at last be proven right.
Machine intelligence is here, in infant form. And now it's learning to walk and talk.
After completing an additional ten-day robot shoot in Europe in the spring, we decided to
continue the grand tour of robotics labs around the world, visiting and revisiting labs
and talking to the people who want to build our mechanical future. We wanted to know where
the robots were going. More than that, we wanted to know where wethat is,
humankindwere going. We were amazed by what we found.
We discovered that the dawn of our postbiological future may arrive sooner than we
imagine. Consider technological progress to date. It took billions of years for primitive
life forms to evolve into mammals, millions of years for the descendents of those first
mammals to lumber into the Stone Age, thousands of years for humans to advance from stone
to steeland only sixty-six years for people to soar from Kitty Hawk to a stroll on
the moon. We accelerated from the Wright stuff to the right stuff so quickly that the
question inevitably arises: how longor how shorta time will it be to the next
step, Robo sapiens?
One part of the answer is that we are already part way thereindeed, we began
evolving in that direction in the last century. With our artificial hips, prosthetic
knees, false teeth, heating aids, pacemakers, breast and penile implants, we are part
cyborg today. (Well, not me personally, you understand.) That list of mechanical parts
doesn't include transplanted organs, skin grafts, and plastic surgery. Or the new
mechanical hearts that are under development today. Or the cochlear and retinal implants
that will be here tomorrow. There may be general resistance to implanting chips in
people's brains, but when a bio-chip is developed to easily enhance memory or linguistic
skills or mathematical abilitieshow long will people just say no? Kevin Warwick (see
page 29) plans to address this question by implanting a chip in his own body next year. It
could be true: the next step in human evolution could indeed be from man to machine.
Another part of this puzzle is provided by the silicon chip, which has rammed our
technological future into overdrive. Computers, nearly ubiquitous now, soon will be. Every
year, they get smaller, faster, cheaper, more powerful. According to what is known as
Moore's Law, computer chips will become faster and more powerful by a factor of two every
year or so. This exponential increase shows no signs of abating, which means that chips
will get faster and faster even as they get smaller and smaller. Contrast this with the
evolution of the human brain and many experts conclude that machine intelligence will
inevitably surpass human intelligencethe only question, is what will happen when it
These are the unknowns in the equation that make the future exciting, and possibly a bit
scarythey blur the lines between science and philosophy. Since we don't understand
the basis for human consciousness yet, how can we create it in machines? Or will
mechanical minds start up by themselves when they reach a certain level of complexity? (Is
there critical thought, like critical mass?) And if machine intelligence does jump-start
itself, will we be able to turn it off if we don't like the results? If an artificial
intelligence is composed of human-compiled facts, does this mean it will be kindly
disposed to humans? Or will it be ethnocentric (or should I say mechanocentric)? Could it
But this assumes that all the evolution will be on the mechanical side. What if we could
start from early childhood with the complete storehouse of knowledge from our predecessors
rather than having to reinstall it each time in our organic-hard-drive brains? Herein lies
the lure of robotic silicon intelligencebio-chips (brain chips, one might call
them). Electronic memory can be accessed a million times faster than human
synapsesit does not have to sleep, and can be downloaded to others (similar
machines, or people with compatible chips). It can be stored, compressed, sortedeven
spindled and mutilated. (No need to get angry, greedy, or jealous.) Of course this
downloaded information would only be data, and data is not knowledge, let alone wisdom.
But in a postbiological world, how long would it be before we learned how to take the next
step and download wisdom? (Could it be a program?)
Now factor in the realm of the very small, where nanotech and bio-chips promise things
unheard of (in fact, undreamed of). Micro Air Vehicles, on page 156, are already
hererobotic flies are on the way. Kris Pister's smart dust (see page 26) may seem
like science fiction, but for how long? Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Today, the technological magic
is more than accepted, it is expected. We believe that our dreams are not just dreams,
they are sneak previews.
In one such preview of primordial mechano-motion, we watched Ariel, an eight-legged crab
robot, sidle along the shore of a wooded pond in Massachusetts (see page 100). Probably
the most complex self-contained machine capable of underwater ambling, Ariel is still very
limited in what it can do. When I mentioned this to Ed Williams, the robot wrangler
technician who was demonstrating the machine, he countered, "What could an airplane
do in 1920? Get you killed in it, that's about all."
The most exciting part of our journey was bearing witness to the first halting
stepsspasmodic evolutionary spurtsof robotics at the beginning of the new
millennium. To be sure. there were glitches along the way, and there will be more. At the
MIT Leg Lab, we saw a robotic Troodon dinosaur (see page 114) twitch its way up to a
standing position, ready to walk forth, only to be crippled by a software glitch before it
took a single step. Mimicking the incredibly complex biological systems that took millions
of years to evolveand to survive and function in a narrow nicheis a daunting
challenge. Shortcutting this process with high-tech tools to analyze animal locomotion,
Robert J. Full's biology lab at UC Berkeley (see page 90) provides data that roboticists
at Stanford, Michigan, and McGill use to build robots that translate these movements into
mechanical systems guided by the genius of biological evolution.
The ultimate quest, the Grail of many roboticists today, is to build a humanoid robot. The
Honda P3 that so astounded me is but one of many attempts to reach this goal. The quest is
moving along at a steady pace that will accelerate with advances in materials, computing
power, and electromechanical interfaces. But why build humanoids? Walking upright on two
legs is as difficult as flying. Is there any other living creature more unstable than a
human in an ambulatory position? Many roboticists say the reason to build such an unwieldy
being is psychologicalthey believe that robots will be more easily accepted by
humans if they are built in the humans' own image. Others think it folly; they admit the
motive for making a machine in one's own image may be psychological, but see it more as a
fascination with playing God. The well-known MIT roboticist Rod Brooks (see page 58
frankly explained that he jumped from building insect robots to Cog, a humanoid, because
he didn't want to spend a lifetime crawling along the robotic evolutionary path when he
sensed he might be able to have a run at something approaching an android.
Shigeo Hirose, one of Japan's most respected roboticists, thinks the humanoid shape may
not be the best idea, in engineering terms, but he argues that any robot engineered to be
intelligent could be engineered to be moral. Robots could be saints, he told us. We could
build them to be unselfish, because they don't have to fight for their biological
existence (see page 89). They can download their artificial intelligence to another
machine, thereby continuing their "life." They don't have to be like the
rampaging machines in R.U.R. Nice robot, smart robot, saintly robot.
In spirit, it seems we are more ready for robots than they are for us. Despite our fears
of Frankenstein's monster or Hollywood's Terminator, if something robotic can make our
life better, we embrace it. We already accept and expect robotic systems to help us: power
steering, cruise control, and GPS systems in our cars; autopilot and IFR landing systems
in airplanes. We trust these machines with our liveswe have built them with multiple
levels of checks and safety features. Our comfort level with robots is rising, too. Many
swimming-pool owners have them cleaning the bottom of the pool every day, and several
companies are developing robot vacuum cleaners for the home. Robots already work in many
factoriesthere is no resistance, really. In the General Motors plant that we visited
(see page 190), robots do all the dirty work, and workers welcome the relief. They say
they don't fear job loss from robotsif a robot takes over their position on the
factory floor, they get to be transferred to less physically demanding work within a more
Robotic progress today is poised to take off like the personal computer did a decade ago.
The shortcomings that have kept robot research away from millions of small inventors and
researchersno universally accepted operating control system and a lack of
standardized partsshould soon be complaints of the past. A standard operating
control system and new lightweight, compliant materials (see page 98) on shape-deposition
manufacturing), coupled with more powerful, energy-efficient actuators, could bring robot
design into the wide, swift mainstream of everyday science.
Today's robots are more than factory workers; they are explorers, space laborers,
surgeons, maids, actors, petsthe list gets longer every day. We should expect to be
surprised, because our imagination will create many, many more roles. Our mechanical
destiny is not to be denied, and the questions arising from the creation of these
creatures are ones that will shape the future of humanity, in whatever form it eventually
This book is not meant to be Genesis-like, detailing each mechanical iteration. Instead, I
hope that my camera and Faith's tape recorder have produced a field guide to our
mechanical future that will make the passage less frightening. Should we assume the worst:
that Robo sapiens will eventually run amok like the machines in R.U.R.? In Act III, during
the robots' siege of the factory, the optimistically na´ve Helena, one of the last
surviving humans, tragically laments to Radius, a robot leader, that his intelligence
should engender understanding, not conflict. In the 1920s play, it didn't. In tomorrow's
real world, we hope it will. Radius can be a saintif we understand the process that
created him and the things in ourselves that drove us to do it.
HELENA. Doctor Gall gave you a larger brain than the rest, larger than ours, the
largest in the world. You are not like the other Robots, Radius. You understand me
RADIUS. I don't want any master. I know everything for myself.
R.U.R. by Karel Capek, 1920
Electric Dreams: What the future may hold
There are great and wondrous robots in our future, say Those Who Know. Robots will assist
the elderly and infirm into and out of wheelchairs and beds, be conversant in several
languages, intuit despair, watch over babies, and provide a sympathetic ear to the lonely.
Smartly appointed robotic vacuum cleaners, robotic cars, robotic maids, robotic cleanup
squads, and robotic personal assistants will lead to greater efficiency and safety in the
world, working where humans can't or won't and providing more free time for their masters.
All but human, ubiquitous, they will be woven invisibly into the fabric of our lives.
There are terrible times in store for the human race, say Those Who Know. Robots will
begin as elder-care assistants and vacuum cleaners, but they won't stay there. They will
take what we teach them and learn to want more. They will make themselves ever smarter and
stronger, until finally, discovering that they are better than we are at everything we do,
they will refuse to take our orders. Far from becoming indispensable components of our
lives, they will find our lives ever more unnecessary to them. If they don't end up
ignoring us, they'll eliminate us.
Who are Those Who Know? The robot pundits. The prognosticators of our mechanical future.
The digital soothsayers. Academic and corporate researchers, for the most part, they study
such exotic domains as artificial intelligence, cyberneurology, and biomimetics. Often at
odds with one another but never unsure of their auguries, they claim to know the future of
the human race, and to know that it will involve robots. Robots, they all agree, will
transform the future. The problem is: they differ on the details. Like whether robots will
serve usor we will serve them.
For more than a year, Peter Menzel and I explored robotics laboratories in Europe, Asia,
and America, looking at projects in development and speaking with researchers. Over time,
we concluded that these pundits are at least partly right. Clearly, the robots are coming.
Although the machines we saw were often barely functional, they were gaining in capacity.
The discipline of roboticsa quirky union involving the fields of artificial
intelligence, computer science, mechanical engineering, psychology, anatomy, and half a
dozen othersis perhaps moving faster than even the researchers know.
The discipline is advancing so rapidly, in fact, that some roboticists have begun
questioning the direction in which their work is heading. Not every roboticist we
encountered felt inclined to speculate on the future, of course. Like all branches of
science and engineering, robotics is full of researchers who try to focus entirely on
their work in the present. For the most part, these people take pains to distinguish
themselves from the robot pundits. But, there is something so magical about the creation
of artificial living creaturesmechanical entities with lifelike behaviorthat
even the soberest of the researchers find themselves wondering what lies ahead for their
creations, and for humankind. The robot revolution will happen, whether we like it or not.
From now on, we and the robots are in this together. All the more reason, thought Peter
and I to try to figure out what's coming down the pike.
Even before 1920, when the Czech writer Karel Capek invented the word "robot" in
his play R.U.R., the world had begun to embrace the concept of artificial workers with
humanlike capacities. Japanese inventors and artisans had created tea-serving automata, or
karakuri, as early as the seventeenth century. Automatamechanical contrivances
designed to act as if they were under their own powerwere familiar diversions in
eighteenth-century European courts. And by the nineteenth century, automatons were
creeping into science-based fiction and folklore in the form of golems, clockwork men, and
One of the first attempts to match reality to fantasy occurred after the Second World War,
when aerospace engineer Joseph Engelberger (see page 186) conceived of machines that could
perform repetitive tasks tirelessly and more accurately than their human counterparts, and
brought robots to the factory floor. What began primarily as a field for mechanical
engineers grew to include engineers of all stripes. Their machines were in essence
puppetsexpensive, beautifully designed devices that were controlled completely by
the strings of their instructions. They couldn't think, create, or react; they simply
performed their tasks, moving with the reflexive precision of a pendulum.
Robotics did not acquire its present scope until the arrival of modern computers, which
inevitably brought with it the idea of stuffing some sort of brain into the robot. In the
1940s, English mathematician Alan Turing laid the groundwork for artificial intelligence,
famously theorizing that a machine is intelligent when there is no discernible difference
between its conversation and that of an intelligent person. At the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, trail-blazing computer scientists John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky founded
what in the late 1950s became the world's first laboratory devoted to artificial
intelligence. One goal was to use artificial intelligence to advance the study of human
intelligence. Another was, of course, to build robots.
In those optimistic days, computer power was growing so fast that true artificial
intelligence seemed to be just around the corner. It wasn't. Some AI researchers were able
to program computers to behave intelligently in certain narrow functions, but they were
never able to create a machine that could speak or read or solve unexpected puzzles.
Dumping a dictionary into a computertheir approach, roughly speakingdidn't
produce a book. Minsky tried to build an "intelligent" arm that could stack
blocks atop one another. It never worked. Beset by difficulty, artificial intelligence as
an active field of research declined in the 1980s.
Partly to blame is the inherent difficulty in creating a simulacrum of a phenomenon that
nobody understands. If the nature of intelligence and consciousness remains a subject for
speculation to this day, how can scientists manufacture it in artificial form? If we
needed to know how our brain workswhere thoughts come from and how memory
worksin order to use it, all of us would be in a heap of trouble. Even the
scientists who have charged themselves with the task of discovering the secrets of the
brain, and are shrinking the pile of unanswered questions and conundrums at a faster and
faster pace, are still working at the level of the educated guess. And if they get to the
bottom of the pile of riddles, will they have the answers they seek? If the magic of a
single thought is made not of illusion but allusion, will its genesis be any more possible
Many roboticists today avoid the quagmires of AI by building what are in essence dumb
machines, without a hint of consciousness but programmed cleverly enough to perform
complex taskssearching for breaks in a municipal sewer system or pumping gas at a
service station (see page 195). Using cheap, scavenged electronic equipment, Mark Tilden,
a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory (see page 117), can make small, insect-like
machines that walk over irregular terrain with as much aplomb as if they had eyes to see
where they were going and minds to adjust their step.
Does a robot need to have much of a brain? It depends on what you want it to do. Usually,
machines we saw in the laboratories were bolted to a bench; some could maneuver around a
finite pristine space under close supervision. But if robots are to inhabit the world's
kitchens, as Tilden puts it, "You probably want the robot to know that it shouldn't
suck up the cat kibble." (Let alone the cat.) When a robot operates in a human
environment, the programming becomes more difficult. Safety concerns, mobility issues, and
space requirements suddenly emerge. If more than one task is involved, the difficulty
increases exponentially. Even a harmless, just-for-fun device like the Sony AIBO robot dog
(see page 224) is subject to these constraintsthat's why it moves slowly, is
soft-edged, and costs twenty-five hundred dollars.
Sophisticated programming alone is not enough to make a machine seem lifelike. Curiously,
what is required often is not great intelligence or startling skills, but randomness.
Predictable behavior is computer-like; randomness is human. To accommodate this
perception, Sony has added touches of spontaneity to the AIBO: in no particular or
repeating order, at any given time, it might "play" with its ball or lie down
and wave its legs in the air. But the notion of randomness in a machine dismays
Engelberger, the robotics pioneer. "Maybe it is more fun and interesting if it screws
up now and then and it does something a little different," he told me. "But I
don't want that. I want the thing to be utterly reliable." ("Robots like the
AIBO have a different purpose." I observe. "Yeah," he says. "To horse
around.") It's understandable that Engelberger would feel that wayhe designs
industrial and health-service-oriented robots, which must be undeviatingly dependable. But
even in the more relaxed atmosphere of the home, unexpected robotic behavior could be less
than charming. A vacuum-cleaning robot that spontaneously broke out into a little dance
might be funny the first few times, but a householder's patience might wear thin if that
expensive robot vacuum cleaner were dancing instead of working, and wearing out its custom
wheels and the Carpet in the process. Thus even the most well-programmed, occasionally
random automata will not be fit companions for people. If robots are to fulfill their
creators' dreams, they will have to be given truly intelligent brains, which means that
even if they want to, researchers will no longer be able to avoid wrestling with the
riddles of AI.
Today, there are two main approaches to creating a clever machine: weak and strong
artificial intelligence. Weak AI is the argument that a machine can simulate the behavior
of human cognition, but it can't actually experience mental states itself. Even though
such machines would be able to pass Turing's test of intelligence, they would still be
little more than extra-complex clock radios. Proponents of strong AI argue, by contrast,
that machines are capable of cognitive mental statesthat it is possible to build a
self-aware machine with real emotions and consciousness.
Strong AI greatly distresses some philosophers, including John Searle of the University of
California at Berkeley. If a computer can have cognitive mental states, he points out,
then a human mind would have to be simply a computer program implemented in the brain. To
Searle, this contention is absurd; consciousness is a first-person, subjective phenomenon
that no mechanical computation, no matter how sophisticated, can produce.
Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University, takes the opposite view.
Consciousness, he says, is at its core algorithmicthat is, the brain has a series of
rules for dealing with incoming sensory data, and the summed execution of these rules in
the lower strata of the mind generates consciousness in the mind's upper strata. If Searle
is right, robotics faces inherent limitationswe will never be able to build a truly
intelligent machine. Dennett offers a more hopeful picture, at least for roboticists. But
there is a chance that both might be wrong. Robots may need a brain to do everything their
advocates imagine, but they may not need a brain that is humanlike. It is possible that
circuitry utterly unlike the human brain could make robots behave in ways that seem
indistinguishable from the workings of intelligent consciousness.
The construction of such machinesa race of intelligent aliens made right here on
Earthwould be an ironic triumph for AI advocates. Proof that artificial intelligence
is possible, these robots would still be incomprehensible; they would provide little or no
insight into the human mind. Worse, they would plunge humankind into an immediate ethical
quandary. If a robot has a brain equal to that of a human being, should it also have the
legal and political rights of a human being?
The question of robotic rights could be less of a concern for the robots Kris Pister
envisions. An electrical engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, Pister has
the courage to think small. He and his colleagues are working toward a robotic future that
is dominated by what he calls "Smart Dust"autonomous robots no more than
the size of a gnat (one cubic millimeter). Although equipped with sensors and ways to move
around, each tiny machine will be relatively simple. But when thousands of them are
combined into a network that permeates the environment, the totality will be capable of
extraordinary things. Sprinkled on a child's clothing, the minute devices could monitor
his or her location and state, sounding the alarm if the child climbed out of the crib or
onto the back of a chair, or seemed to be choking. Instead of using a keyboard, people
could stick Smart Dust on their fingers and run their computers by making finger motions.
By scattering Smart Dust equipped with moisture and acidity sensors on food, homeowners
could monitor the freshness of the items in their refrigerators. Mechanical motes on
workers' clothing could signal office heating and cooling systems to raise or lower the
temperature. In effect, the dust would turn the entire environment into an invisible
robot, constantly on the alert to do the human's bidding.
The first exemplars of Pister's version of a microelectrical and mechanical system are
expected in 2001, but they will only be able to perform simple tasks like monitoring the
temperature around them. Pister's students are developing minuscule legs and wings that
will make the dust more mobile. Greater communication power and more complex sensors will
come later. But the goal is always the same: individual components that can work together
in clouds, literal clouds. Pister believes that in the future millions of these tiny
robots will be constantly floating through the air. "When you fly across the
country," he told me, "pilots are always saving, `The last guy who passed
through here 20 minutes ago told us that we are going to hit some turbulence.' If these
guys were passing out Smart Dust from the back of the plane, they could query it as they
went through to see exactly where the turbulence was."
Because inventions that don't yet exist can't be photographed, Peter set up a photo
illustration to conceptualize Pister's ideas. The researcher stood before a projection of
a pop-up micro Fresnel lensthe kind of lens used in lighthousesand blew
glitter into the light. I asked what he saw when he looked at the finished picture
(above). "When I see the Fresnel lens," he said, "mentally I see a beam of
light come out that's modulated on and off and transmitting information. Or maybe it's
drawing a picture on a screen or on the back of my retina. Then, the sparkling glitter
coming out of my handswhen I see that, I think it's the little lasers that the Smart
Dust particles use to communicate with each other. On our time scale, we see these things
rushing out like a mad jumble. On their time scale, it's a very slow, beautiful,
underwater dance. They're talking to one another as they're flying through the air,
telling each other what they are seeing`Who's where?' and, `Let's set up our
Smart Dust has obvious military, applications and in fact the research is backed by the US
military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Pister admits that his ideas
could have a downside: permeating the world with invisibly small robots will make it
possible to watch anyone, anywhere, at any time, but thinks the benefits of this
technology will far outweigh the negative.
Without the Pentagon, US robotics in its present stage of evolution could very well
collapse; in our research for this book, it was rare to find a top American researcher who
was not sponsored at least in part by DARPA or the US Navy's Office of Naval Research
(ONR), though other entities such as the National Institute of Health also provide some
funding. Even foreign nationals like German researcher Frank Kirchner of the prestigious
German National Research Center (see page 113) has US military funding for a robot project
with Northeastern University's Joe Ayers (see page 110).
Is military backing for robotics a touchy subject with researchers? Not particularly. As
aerospace pioneer Paul MacCready (see page 156) dryly observes, "It's been my
experience that whatever we've done for the military has done more good for the
nonmilitary." Generally, researchers go where the money is. DARPA's program managers
solicit, vet, and fund proposals submitted by universities, private research laboratories,
and corporations; they run conferences and meetings for prospective and current awardees
just as professional organizations do for their membersan especially valuable
resource in robotics, say researchers, because of the field's multidisciplinary nature.
And the military supports non-secret projects with humanitarian uses, including robots
that search for and disarm land mines (see pages 101 and 111). "We'll play in
anyone's back-yard," says Georgia Institute of Technology's Ron Arkin of his lab's
Pentagon support (see page 152). "But we'll only do open, unclassified research.
That's where I draw the line, personally. Everything we do we can publish."
There is an unavoidable bottom line. "You have to have somebody who's a receiver for
the technology," says Arkin, lamenting the lack of support in long-term robotics
research by US corporations, which generally want a more immediate return on investment.
"The question is," he says, "what industries are going to be ready to
nurture that technology for the five or ten years it might take to build that
Because its US-designed constitution is intended to forestall military adventurism, Japan
does little defense research. Instead, its private corporations and the government are
heavily involved in robotics research for commercial applications. Japan's equivalent of
DARPA's robot program is its nationwide initiative to create a humanoid robot industry.
The country's historic legacy in robotics has centered on mekatoronikusu, or mechatronics,
a fusion of mechanical and electronic engineering, and it expects that its future will be
chock full of autonomous walking robots of the humanoid persuasion. The country is in the
midst of a ten-year national project to build just such a robot, which, says the
University of Tokyo's Hirochika Inoue, "will walk in an unstructured environment and
perform complex tasks." Japan's hope is that, among other applications, such a robot
will fill the need for elder care in their aging population and situate the country at the
forefront of a new humanoid robotics industry.
Inoue, a respected roboticist and a principal member of the project's governing committee,
calls the humanoid project Japan's grand challenge. Though some researchers, such as
Shigeo Hirose of the Tokyo Institute of Technology (see page 89), question such a robot's
viability, Inoue is fiercely supportive of the project, which he sees as a technological
lifeline for a country left behind when the software industry took off.