Making Robots More Like Us: Knowledge@Wharton (http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2194)
Making Robots More Like Us
Published : April 01, 2009 in Knowledge@Wharton
As a professor in the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science, Daniel Lee works on important -- and sometimes well-funded -- research projects that advance humankind'sscientific knowledge and understanding. Over the last five years, Lee's projects have included coaching a highly-competitive canine soccer team, entering a challenging road race in the California desert and teaching a dog how to do a back flip. That last one is even harder than it sounds, as Lee recently demonstrated. The pooch successfully flipped backwards on a rubber mat on top of a three-foot highdemonstration table but then caught the edge and fell on the floor with a loud thud. Said Lee: "Sometimes they're not so intelligent."
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Lee's subject was not a real dog, but a Sony Aibo --a robot. And while there is an element of whimsy in his research, Lee's projects -- teaching robotic dogs to play soccer as a cohesive team, or programming a car with sensors and small motors to navigate a traffic-laden city street with no driver -- all advance the professor's ambitious goal. Quite simply, he wants to learn how to make robots think and act like humans. At a recent lecture titled,"Smart Robots: What's Next?" sponsored by the Executive Master's in Technology Management program -- a partnership of Penn Engineering and Wharton -- Lee said there is much to be learned before robots can routinely behave like humans in a broad range of tasks. For many years, the challenge was in the basic technology that makes robots work. But despite advances in that technology, human-likeintelligence -- even the ability to recognize a face -- remains beyond our current reach, Lee noted as he posed a key question for his field: "What makes it so hard to build something intelligent?" Replacing Human Soldiers The answer is more than merely academic. In the United States, the Pentagon is spending billions -- as much as $100 billion over a number of years, according to some technologyanalysts -- to develop robots that can aid or replace human soldiers. The U.S. Department of Defense's Future Combat Systems (FCS) modernization initiative is funding research to develop that technology. Among its recipients are Lee and others on a Penn team that was awarded $22 million by the Army Research Lab to create robots that can operate in combat zones with little supervision. Whilemilitary uses have tended to dominate commercial development of autonomous robots in America, business opportunities for smart robots are also sizable, according to Lee, who points out that Japan's research into intelligent robotics has been oriented towards helping that nation's rapidly aging population perform domestic tasks. Advanced research into artificial intelligence may take commercialdevelopment of robots beyond what one expert recently called "the three Ds -- anything dull, dirty or dangerous." On March 31, Honda demonstrated a helmet-like device that can read human brain waves and transmit them to a humanoid robot, also built by Honda. With such a device, a person can make the robot, named Asimo, perform simple tasks, including moving its arm. "In Japan, they see robots as a kind ofservice," said Lee, while in the United States there is slower movement toward commercial tasks for robots. "In the U.S., the National Science Foundation is funding a
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