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Q&A with James Kuffner, Google Robotics Researcher

At a military contest in Miami, a Google scientist discusses the future of robotics.
December 23, 2013

At a racetrack in Florida this weekend, 16 robots competed to complete a series of tasks inspired by challenges faced in cleaning up the destroyed Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant. Two of the companies involved in the DARPA contest—Boston Dynamics and Schaft—were recently acquired by Google, which has also bought at least six other robotics companies in recent months. James Kuffner, a research scientist at Google and a member of its new robotics team, spoke to MIT Technology Review’s news and analysis editor, Will Knight, on the sidelines of the event.

What can you tell me about why Google bought these robotics companies?

Nothing right now.

Well, what do you find exciting about this contest?

I’ve been working on humanoid robotics for 20 years and I was for seven years a professor at CMU teaching robotics, and then five years ago moved to Google to work on the self-driving car, and I’ve always been interested in seeing forward-looking technology go from just an idea in a research lab to actually doing something practical and useful. I think setting up these tasks and challenges is a good way to motivate people to work on hard problems and try to bring together the best hardware and software to make these machines do useful tasks. Could Fukushima’s disaster have been mitigated somewhat by robots like this? Absolutely. So I feel it’s important that as a culture, and as a planet, that we keep pushing forward the boundaries.

So far robotics has been very brittle, and it’s going to take best-in-class software and hardware, and a lot of hard work to make these robots achieve the same level of performance and agility that humans and animals have. I think that’s sort of an inspiration goal and something to motivate everyone to work toward.

How important is Boston Dynamics, the company that develops the robot many of the teams are using?

Marc [Raibert, founder and chief technology officer] has built an incredible team of talented engineers, and was able to build a company that’s always been pushing the boundaries of the limits of our understanding of control and our understanding of powerful actuation inspired by the capabilities of humans and animals. I think it’s very innovative and exciting, and I’m very excited to think about the potential of working with Marc and his team closely.

Is this technology at an earlier stage than the self-driving cars demonstrated at previous DARPA challenges?

Well, if you look back, the original DARPA challenge for autonomous vehicles basically came down to waypoint following and GPS, and then of course as it progressed to the Urban Challenge it became much more complicated; you had to deal with other vehicles, traffic rules, and staying in lanes, and that really demonstrated a level of sophistication required in the software, as well as reliable hardware. [At this challenge], these tasks certainly may look easy, especially for a human, but they’re very, very difficult and so I think already they’re starting to push the boundaries.

For sure the actual mobility demonstrated in the grand challenge was riding on the back of 80 years of developing commercial automobiles. You can’t yet buy these robots, so they’re very much research prototypes. But I feel like in the last 20 years there’s been incredible acceleration, and I’m really excited to see this much effort and attention being paid to try and make the robots do something practical.