Where’s My Robot is an excellent documentary hosted by Danny Wallace for the BBC. In 2008, he traveled to laboratories around the world to learn why robots aren’t ready to move in with you, and approaches the various challenges from the position of a layman. As such it’s a good introduction to the major obstacles standing in the way of useful robot helpers, and what strategies are being explored to overcome them.
He visits the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Lab, where he’s given a demonstration of the somewhat underwhelming STAIR (Stanford A.I. robot). Danny is quick to point out that STAIR hardly resembles his ideal robot companion, but comes away impressed by its ability to fetch a stapler on command.
Next he travels to Japan to meet AIST’s HRP-3 Promet Mk. II, which meets his expectations of what robots ought to look like, but is disappointingly limited in what it can do. The demonstration is cut short when the robot falls over – an embarrassing repeat of an accident from Robosapiens. That was a rude wake-up call for Danny, so he’s off to meet with Prof. Gerald Edelman (Director, The Neurosciences Institute) for a quick lesson on the brain.
With perception as the starting point, Danny meets up with Dr. Gabriel Gomez (Computer Science & A.I. Lab, MIT) for a quick chat with DOMO. It’s a robot with some basic recognition skills, but nothing too exciting. Replicating the human brain in its entirety seems like the best solution, but current scanning technology has its limitations too, as Danny discovers when he undergoes a scan himself. And perhaps, as Dr. Rodney Brooks suggests, we’re simply not smart enough to understand the sheer complexity of the human brain. A humbling thought, but Brooks hasn’t given up the ghost just yet, even if he no longer works on COG.
In what will trigger a keen sense of deja vu for those who have seen James May’s Big Ideas, Danny meets Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro and his Geminoid (though I liked this interview better). I especially enjoyed it when Ishiguro chuckles as he recounts his daughter’s terrifying encounter with the Geminoid he built of her.
As if the Geminoids weren’t horrific enough, Danny’s next stop is at MIT’s Personal Robotics Group, where Dr. Cynthia Breazeal introduces him to a creature-like robot called Leonardo. Of course, the intention was to design an expressive robot that was expressly non-human to avoid the pitfalls of the uncanny valley, but Leonardo is so realistic that it has a disgusting effect all its own. It’s like some sort of monster; a cute monster, but a monster nonetheless. Breazeal reminds Danny that humanoid robots are just one in a bucketful of potential partner robots.
I quite enjoyed this one, and I think you will too if you track it down.
- Where’s My Robot? at BBC Horizon