We, robot: What real-life machines can and can’t do

As director of the Maryland Robotics Center, Satyandra Gupta oversees 25 faculty members working on all things robotic: snake-inspired robots, robotic swarms, minirobots for medicine and robots for exploring extreme environments on land, under the sea and in outer space. In September the Center hosted its first Robotics Day; afterward, Gupta talked robots with Science News writer Rachel Ehrenberg.

A lot of us teach ourselves how to reason, how to think, how to analyze new information….This has been very difficult for robots to be able to do.

How do robots influence our lives today?
There are certain scenarios, such as manufacturing — making cars, making airplanes — where people are replacing human labor with robotic devices and the rationale is usually that it is less expensive, quality is consistent, that kind of thing. Then there are certain applications where very few humans can do the task because the skills required are so high…. Surgery would be an example. Let’s imagine that there’s a very hard-to-perform surgery that very few humans can do. Now if a robot can be trained or even teleoperated by these surgeons, then you would be able to get that performance from that robot.

A third scenario is where humans can do it but it is so dangerous that it doesn’t make sense…. Disaster relief, mining — if people get trapped and you want to send somebody in, the situation is often dangerous and rescue efforts can get delayed quite a bit. Another category is in space applications. Sending people to Mars to do explorations, it’s just not feasible. You don’t have any alternative except to send a robotic vehicle there. Or if you are going to send something to a planet far, far away and it takes, say 10 years to get there and 10 years to get back, it’s just not realistic to think about deploying humans. 

Also, for example, with prosthetics, these are tasks where no human can be the replacement. If somebody lost a limb and you need to give them an artificial limb, then there’s no competition, no human substitute for that, for the capability needed by that person. Similarly when you are looking at a very small airplane doing surveillance, you don’t have an option of a human doing that surveillance because, in order for a human to be sitting in there and flying it, the size has to be bigger than a certain threshold. But if you have a very small plane which can do the surveillance for you, then you have all kinds of advantages and maneuverability. So there the robot is not a substitute for the human; the robot gives you brand new capabilities.

Is it important to have thinking robots?
I think the goal has been to make the robot intelligent.… The idea being that you should be able to give the robot a goal, a mission, and the robot should be able to take actions based on the mission and whatever information becomes available. So that’s what people would like, as opposed to programming a robot at a very, very low level that specifies move this way, move that way.

Isn’t it hard to mimic what was created by billions of years of evolution?
Yes, at both levels. Mimicking evolution in the physical manifestation is hard. What tends to happen is natural systems have lots of little joints, lots of little muscles which pull and tug and make the motion. And if you start introducing that many joints and that many motors in a synthetic thing, your cost goes up exponentially as complexity keeps growing. At the same time, the reliability goes down. If any single joint fails, your whole thing is going to fail. So that makes it very hard to mimic nature.

On the brain side of things, it is also very, very hard. A lot of us teach ourselves how to reason, how to think, how to analyze new information and make sense of it. This has been very difficult for robots to be able to do. So people will try to program different contexts and different scenarios for what a robot should do, but that way of doing it is simply not scalable. You don’t have enough time and manpower to code up all the possible scenarios that a robot would encounter and what it should be doing. People have made very small steps toward reasoning and learning, but in general robots do not yet know how to learn.

Will we ever have to worry about evil robots?
I’m not too worried about that, but I am really worried about the virus part of it. All of us have computers, and there are some people that are intent on infecting our computers with viruses. So in that way, you will have a bad or evil robot. Not that it thought and then became bad or evil, but it will be evil because somebody wrote a virus and infected its brain.

Think about it this way: People introduce a virus that can clean out your hard disk, right? Imagine if somebody wrote a virus on a robot and it started punching a hole in the wall…. Because a computer isn’t just running the robot’s brain. It has a bunch of limbs sticking out, and you can do a lot of damage with those limbs.