In our upcoming Sunday magazine, I profile Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech and a leader in the movement to perfect the humanoid robot.
In the movies, robots are everywhere, boxing and shooting and running and flying and generally outdoing humans at every turn. In reality, the humanoid robot has a long way to go. Simply powering an autonomous robot is a nightmare; current battery technology allows a robot maybe 20 minutes of life, and (as one of Hong’s students told me) if you poke the power cell with a pencil, it will explode. Visual sensors are costly and erratic. The simple human act of walking has eluded the world’s best robot scientists, although thanks to Hong and others, that barrier is finally coming down.
Some observers say humanoid robotics is today where personal computer technology was in the 1970s. It is an exciting time. And here are five robo-scientists to watch.
Colin Angle . A former denizen of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Angle went on to found iRobot, creator of the Roomba vacuum-cleaner robot. According to his company bio, “Angle’s master thesis at MIT produced Genghis, a six-legged autonomous walking robot that is now at the Smithsonian National Air and Science Museum in Washington.”
Chris Atkeson . Atkeson is a Harvard grad and a star at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, a leading expert on how to get robots to learn, and how to get them to act human. His bio says, “My life goal is to fulfill the science fiction vision of machines that achieve human levels of competence in perceiving, thinking, and acting.”
Scott Hassan. Hassan was “was the key software architect/developer of Google,” according to his bio, and went on to found Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley startup devoted to building humanoid robots for the people. Willow Garage champions open-source software, and the company has loaned several of its PS2 robots to other robot labs so they can learn from and improve upon their creation. In this video, PS2 goes to the refrigerator and fetches a beer.
Marc Raibert. He’s co-founder and president of Boston Dynamics, a Cambridge firm that has developed robots that can run, hop and climb like animals. Raibert came out of MIT and ran its Leg Lab, becoming one of the nation’s foremost authority on the impossibly difficult task of getting robots to walk. His best-known robot is the surprisingly agile Big Dog. Raibert’s newest creation is PETMAN, a surprisingly limber robot designed to test clothing for the military.
Stefan Schaal. Schaal runs the Computational Learning and Motor Control Lab at USC, another big player in humanoid robots. He’s an expert in teaching robots to learn, as well as to move. Among other projects, Schaal’s team has worked on Little Dog, a diminutive counterpart to Big Dog.
I will go out on an equitable note. There are no women on the list above; robotics seems to be one of the few remaining academic disciplines still dominated by men. So, here is a tribute to some of the top women in the Carnegie Mellon robotics endeavor.