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Machines Like Us

Beyond bodies: there’s more to robots than a humanoid shape

Monday, 14 January 2013
by Nathan Kirchner

If someone tells you to think of a robot, what springs to mind? Is it a humanoid shape made of metal, with glowing eyes, that speaks in a jerky voice?

Or is it a robotic factory arm, or a car that can park for you, or maybe a system that heats or cools your house?

For some time now pop culture has painted a particular picture of robots. From Asimov’s ‘bots, to the Terminator – even the Transformers – the very concept of a robot has grown up next to these hugely popular sci-fi characters.

So why aren’t we seeing robots like these by now?

Hollywood bots

On one hand we have the glamourised depictions of sci-fi robots. On the other we have the roboticist’s more pragmatic view of robots as machines that perform functions in an autonomous way.

For these roboticists (myself included), robots are all around us – in our cars, our homes, on public transport and in buildings.

Part of the problem is that there are a number of research projects around the globe that seem to fit the “Hollywood” robot image – Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratories with their Geminoid and Robovie enabled research and our own RobotAssist to name just a couple.

This is one major source of the confusion surrounding the state of the art in robotics. In an attempt to make our research accessible to the wider world we, the roboticists, have leaned on pop culture’s sci-fi robot and subsequently reinforced the stereotype.

Sure, the fundamental research questions we are probing are embedded in the project, so there’s no harm done, right? Well, yes actually, there is.

Great expectations

We’ve shaped the presentation of our research around this stereotype and the actual science questions are less visible to the casual spectator of our work.

With robotics research and development presented in this manner, the tendency for the casual onlooker is to measure the gaps between the research on show and the benchmark of the sci-fi robot. This is not always a true indication of the state of the art.