“Computer! Turn on the lights!” Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory-the largest A.I. lab in the world-strides into his ninth-floor office in Cambridge, MA. Despite his demand, the room stays dark. “Computer!” he repeats, sitting down at the conference table.
“I’malreadylistening,” comes a HAL-like voice from the wall. Brooks redirects his request toward a small microphone on the table, this time enunciating more clearly: “Turn on the lights!”
A pleasant tweeting sound signals digital comprehension. The lights click on. Brooks grins, his longish, graying curls bouncing on either side of his face, and admits his entrance was a somewhat rough demonstration of “pervasive computing.” That’s a vision of a post-PC future in which sensors and microprocessors are wired into cars, offices and homes-and carried in shirt pockets-to retrieve information, communicate and do various tasks through speech and gesture interfaces. “My staff laughs at me,” says Brooks, noting he could have simply flicked the light switch, “but I have to live with my technology.”
In the not-too-distant future, a lot more people may be living with technologies that Brooks’s lab is developing. To help make pervasive computing a reality, researchers in his lab and MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science are developing-in an effort Brooks codirects called Project Oxygen-the requisite embeddable and wearable devices, interfaces and communications protocols. Others are building better vision systems that do things like interpret lip movements to increase the accuracy of speech recognition software.
Brooks’s A.I. Lab is also a tinkerer’s paradise filled with robotic machines ranging from mechanical legs to “humanoids” that use humanlike expressions and gestures as intuitive human-robot interfaces-something Brooks believes will be critical to people accepting robots in their lives. The first generation of relatively mundane versions of these machines is already marching out of the lab. The robotics company Brooks cofounded-Somerville, MA-based iRobot-is one of many companies planning this year to launch new robot products, like autonomous floor cleaners and industrial tools built to take on dirty, dangerous work like inspecting oil wells.
Of course, autonomous oil well inspectors aren’t as thrilling as the robotic servants earlier visionaries predicted we’d own by now. But as Brooks points out, robotics and artificial intelligence have indeed worked their way into everyday life, though in less dramatic ways (see “A.I. Reboots,” TR March 2002). In conversations with TR senior editor David Talbot, Brooks spoke (with occasional interruptions from his omnipresent computer) about what we can expect from robotics, A.I. and the faceless voice from the hidden speaker in his wall.