Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Robots are cool to watch. They are technology in motion. Unlike a tablet or even an iPhone with siri, people anthropomorphize robots. In some cases, they project more intelligence into them than they have, and sometimes the intelligence is just not evident.

So robot videos very likely deceive the viewer. Robot guys like to know what is under the hood first before they see the video.

The public likes to see the video and very rarely cares about what is under the hood.

But it matters. At least to me.

What I mean is that people seem to have an appetite for robots and have an unfailing admiration for even the most minuscule advance in robotics. I often see videos of robots which the public finds interesting. I scratch my head in wonder and say, why do people find that cool?

Well, there are some clear rules as to what makes good research.

First, all research should a goal. These goals can be broadly defined along two dimensions: Applied Research or Basic Research.

Since this is a robotics blog, I willcontrive an example. Suppose you want to solve one of the two most important applied problems in robotics: "get me a beer" (the other having something to do with "lover robots" which are surely on the horizon).

You can approach this by a process commonly known as "hacking." You write a program, you tweak, you modify. You come up with a basic script which goes something like this:

Listen for a command.

Execute Command.

Under the execute command, you subdivide the problem into:

Command = Get a beer?

if yes, your robot executes this procedure (aka subroutine):

(1) go to the kitchen

(2) Open the fridge

(3) Find the beer

(4) Grab the beer

(5) Close the fridge

(6) Find you

(7) give you the beer.

So, that is a "hacked" solution.

It is a one-off, ad hoc (done for a specific purpose). If you sell this program to someone the process is commonly known in the robotics world as fobbing (I credit this colorful term to my friend Mark Tilden).

It is not general. Suppose you said: "bring me a class of merlot! " While to you and me these seem like related tasks, the robot would not be able to respond. It has no program to find the merlot, uncork it get a glass etc.

Regardless, we can play in this play ground of applied research for a long time and probably get a lot of papers, a paycheck and a girl or guy to have diner with on Saturday night... after cashing said paycheck.

We can ask such meaningful questions as: "How many times does the robot get the correct beer (and not a bottle of soy sauce)? "

How many times does it leave the door open.

How many types of refrigerators can we adapt to, etc.

All very practical questions of great concern to employers of roboticist. All of some commercial value. However, in my mind such solutions are, well, like one-line jokes. Fun the first time, but really old the second and third time.

I mean, would you rather be stuck in an elevator with Rodney Dangerfield (bless his soul) or Stephen Colbert? (if you don't know who I am talking about, google is your friend). Rodney has some incredible one-liners, but once you have heard them, the second time they are stale (lets give him credit and say the 3rd or forth time). Colbert, trained as improvisational comedian, could probably go on for hours without repeating himself.

So, back to robotics. If you want to be a robot scientist do you want to be a Rodney Dangerfield or a Stephen Colbert?

To build a robot like Colbert (asymmetric ears optional) you have to build something that can improvise sensibly in any situation. To do so, you need to have awareness and understanding of your surroundings.

So, we begin to think deeper. We begin about questions like:" What does it mean to "Understand" a command? " Why should the robot carry out a command in the first place. Can a robot have freewill (I would argue that any true robot can say, "nope, get it your self" or "Haven't you had enough already" Or "be careful you don't trip over your gut next time you go running" You know. The robot would have free will.

You might say: "What is a beer?" It is a kind of "object." "What is an object?"

Ah... you know it is a thingy... that I can pick up... Can you pick up all objects... no somethings are components like door knobs.. Are door knobs objects?

You get the idea. You begin to dig deeper into the meaning of things.

Finally, after about fifteen years, you emerge from your basement cellar, and you have thought very deep thought for a very long time (and didn't get tenure I may add) and have come up with fundamental answers.

What you realize is that to answer these questions you cannot reference just the physical world, you must reference the world of human perception. Of how the world is constructed by humans and you must understand human psychology well enough to match your robots view of the world with your own. Your say that your robot must share your "Merkwelt" (fancy german world for "world view). Using fancy foreign is really a good idea if you want to be published.

Wow.. Profound. Now we are getting somewhere. A robot that understands the world as you do. When you say "get me a beer" (and I am assuming the robot is in jovial and cooperative mood) it brings you the beer.

Both robots can perform the same task with the same input. Both look equally good on video. However, they are profoundly different in the approach they took to solve the problem.

Which one is better?

I cannot decide that answer for you. I can only say, that the "hack" is something one might do to whet one's appetite for robotic science but it is not robotics science itself.

While Steven Colbert might come up with a one-liner that floors you. His best one-liners (usually at the end of an interview with a guess) seem completely spontaneous, valid in just that moment and, therefore, genius.

Rodney Dangerfield may have a carefully crafted one liner. For my money, it would be a lot more fun to be trapped in an elevator with Colbert.

Anyway, I got a lot our of reading this book: Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation

I think it is a must for aspiring scientists of any sort.

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