Siddhartha Srinivasa grew up in Madras (now Chennai), India, playing at the beach, reading science fiction and dreaming of one day building his own robot. At age 8, he programmed his dad’s computer to play chess. After studying math, physics and computer science in India, he came to Pittsburgh and founded the Personal Computer Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 as a graduate student. Today, Srinivasa directs the lab as an associate professor of robotics and the father of HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler. HERB can unload your dishwasher, take apart an Oreo (sometimes) and act in a play. Srinivasa spoke with The Post by telephone about HERB and the field of robotics; HERB was not available for comment.
Is HERB male or female?
He’s male. Mostly because when I started this project I thought about a domestic robot as a stuck-up British butler. I used to read Tintin and Richie Rich comics, where they had these British butlers. I thought if I am building a robot, that’s what I wanted. He’s kind of big and bulky. We can’t build small svelte robots. We have another robot that is a wheelchair robotic arm. It’s very useful and caring and helpful, so my students called it ADA, for Assistive Dexterous Arm. Now we have both a boy and girl robot in our lab.
What makes him so unusual?
HERB’s specialty is his advanced manipulation skills. He was designed and developed with the main goal of manipulating in cluttered and uncertain environments with and around people. He’s probably the best in the world at that.
I guess that explains the Oreo challenge?
I got a call from Oreo, from Kraft Foods, last year. They said, “We have an Oreo challenge and we would like HERB to separate the Oreo from the cream.” We realized that the Oreo is the smallest, most delicate and most challenging thing that HERB has ever manipulated. They said, “We are going to come in two weeks and [tape] the robot. We don’t care if it succeeds or not.” So we wrote an Oreo cookie detector using an algorithm. It turns out the cookies and the cream all have different thicknesses. It was maddening for a robot. It only worked two of 10 times. The Oreo cookie problem is not solved.
How did HERB rehearse for his play?
It was a two-person play to celebrate 100 years of the CMU School of Drama. I was interested in exploring what it would take to give HERB a personality. Drama is the best way to do it. We worked together with a director and an actress, and my own student. We have been developing open-source tools to allow anybody — like a dramatist — to easily program and control a robot. The director said, “I need more energy in HERB.” We needed a fast interface to create several motions of HERB that were realistic and close to what he wanted. The goal was to develop building blocks to be able to give them tools and software packages that anyone could use. It was performed publicly before several hundred people. It was live. It was terrifying. He performed flawlessly.
HERB can unload a dishwasher. Impressive. Were a lot of dishes broken in that process?
Ha ha, no dishes were harmed during the process. Merely bruising and denting. Suffice it to say that the moment a robot unloads a dishwasher without breaking or denting anything, you’ll have it in your home. We’re a long way from that.
Is there some of you in HERB?
I think so. There is some of my dreams and aspirations. I grew up reading a lot of science fiction. I always wanted to build a physically intelligent system that would be very capable. I love solving problems, and I think HERB is like that. Everything is a new problem, and he never gets tired of picking up coffee mugs. Maybe that’s part of me. We both have curiosity for trying to figure out how the world works.
Were you a kid who loved to play with Legos?
No, I grew up in India, and Legos weren’t a big thing. They were something your rich uncle brought from the United States, and I didn’t have one. We were playing in the streets, a lot of cricket or in the parks, but not much TV. Most of my Legolike play came when my dad brought a computer home. He was a professor, and he was able to get a PC for his own work at home. I started programming it when I was 8. It was the time when Deep Blue (an IBM computer) was playing Garry Kasparov at chess. I watched the world’s best chess player being humbled by a computer. My own chess-playing computer program was horrible. But at least it taught me to how to think about algorithm development — or developing and refining new and innovative strategies for solving problems.
What led you to robotics?
One of the nice things about writing the chess-playing game is that it gave me a quantitative way to measure my success. I could play against it. I realized I was as much interested in how can it play — the battle of wits — more than just writing code. Robotics is about what the entire system could do in the world. I was also inspired by a physics teacher in India. He bestowed in me a love of understanding mechanical systems like pulleys and how Newtonian mechanics works in an intuitive way. It’s something I lean on heavily when I do robotics.
Will a robot ever replace you?
I think it is inevitable that technology will enhance and replace some of the things we are doing. If you look at the Industrial Revolution, a lot of tasks were replaced. Robots will perform more and more of the hard and menial and dull and dangerous tasks that we perform now. I hope someday that a lot of the things I do get replaced by a robot so I can focus on the things I love doing.
Niiler is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase who regularly interviews scientists for The Post.