Robots ‘R’ Us
Using robots to understand the human brain could also produce more autonomous robots. That may not be saying much. MIT artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky says, “Robots today seem uniformly stupid, unable to solve even simple, commonsense problems.” The most successful product from iRobot in Burlington, MA, a leading robotics company, is a vacuum cleaner. Industrial robots paint cars and build microchips but can’t do anything they’re not programmed to do. But there is increasing interest, especially in Japan and Europe, in developing new humanoid robots using insights from neuroscience.
That development has already begun in Kawato’s lab. As part of a five-year, $8 million project, DB is getting an overhaul, based in part on what Kawato has learned from probing the human brain. The new robot – designed, like DB, by Sarcos of Salt Lake City, UT – will be more humanlike in its anatomy, brain architecture, power requirements, and strength. It will have powerful legs that will allow it to walk and run. (By contrast, the current DB can’t walk.) Once the new bot is operational in late 2005, one of its first uses will be as a test platform for studying gait disorders and falls among elderly people.
Kawato is also laying the foundation for a grander collaboration between robotics and neuroscience. Together with Sony and Honda, he is lobbying the Japanese government to help fund a worldwide project to build a humanoid robot that would have the intelligence and capabilities of a five-year-old child. In addition to the technological payoff, says Kawato, the benefits to neuroscience would be immense, though he believes it will take upwards of $500 million a year for 30 years to make it happen.
The evolution of robots into something more humanlike is probably inevitable. Experts agree there is nothing magical about how the brain works, nothing that is too inherently complex to figure out and copy. As Kawato is learning in his lab, the ultimate value in closing the gap between humans and machines might lie in what new generations of robots can teach us about ourselves.