Robots people the landscape of our sci-fi fantasies. Egg-shaped and beeping, golden humanoids with bad joints, and fully functioning (if pasty looking) androids.
But they’re just fantasies, right? Just figments of the imaginations of the Lucases and Roddenberries of the world.
Well… Resistance is futile. Robots are real. And they are here to stay.
Paul Oh is one of the people making sure of that. Oh is the Director of the Drones and Autonomous Systems Lab at UNLV and he and his team won a competition last year sponsored by DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency with their robot named HUBO.
The competition is featured in Nova’s “The Rise of the Robots,” which aired Feb. 24 on PBS.
How are robots going to change the world?
Everyone has a fantasy of having a robot that they can play with or will do some work for them. It’s the fantasy that really drives the engineering and the imagination. We are yet to have a robot that meets all of our fantasies. But they are already here, they are already part of our everyday life. I think they’re going to be more useful and better for us.
Why are many robots modeled after humans? Are we really the most efficient creature to imitate?
When you want robots to move around in a human-centered environment, when you want them to operate human tools, you probably want a form factor that is somewhat human like. Whether it’s climbing ladders or stairs, whether it’s driving a car, whether it’s operating a hand drill, most likely the robots form will be somewhat human like.
You’ve talked about the robots being used for disaster relief or doing work during a disaster that humans can’t do. But what else can these robots be used for?
That is a very good question and that is something that I’m trying to get the community to join me in. Of course, the first 72 hours after a disaster are extremely sensitive, the golden window, where lives are stake and it’s a very fast tempo. People soon forget that disaster cleanup is a much longer and much more costly process. Robots like HUBO are helping in a disaster cleanup. That’s extremely important.
Japan has a very large and active robotics industry and yet they couldn’t deploy robots when the disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant happened in 2011. Why couldn’t they do that?
When you have robots that are designed in a lab in a sanitized situation, you don’t get to appreciate or experience the real-world issues that a robot will face. Especially in Fukushima, not only was it very chaotic and disorganized because of the disaster area, but there was a lot of communication blackouts. So suddenly the wireless comms didn’t work. Also there were lighting issues, so robots couldn’t see effectively. There’s water on the steel stairs that leads to slipping. There were a lot of real-world issues. In many ways that was the first instance that Japan had to apply robots in an environment they’re not used to.
What are the challenges of building a robot so that it can work on its own and navigate some of the real-world situations?
There’s a lot of challenges. That is why it will be a while before we have these types of robots that are readily deployed. At UNLV, we’re focusing on the different types of walking modalities [while] at the same time giving our students a very broad understanding of engineering because it involves mechanical, electrical, computer science, and in some instances, even biology. There’s an enormous amount of research and development that is involved. But robots are the fantasy. It’s something that we’re trying to realize each and every day.
Robots can be heavy. What can you do to make them lighter?
Sometimes they are heavy by design. Our very first HUBO that our students worked with, which was designed around 2007, was about the size of the weight of a 10-year-old boy. The purpose of that robot was to engage children and public audiences. It was very cute robot and the children weren’t intimidated by it. But just like you wouldn’t send a 10-year-old boy out to a disaster response, you want something that is much stronger and much more robust, more muscular in some instances.
Some people might be surprised to learn that UNLV has a world-class robotics department:
“Yeah, I don’t know why people would find that surprising… I remind people that Nevada had a heritage of high technology. If you look at what Howard Hughes did, basically the commercial aviation industry all started here in the Las Vegas region. A lot of what happened at the Nevada Test Site, again, has a heritage of high technologies in radiation.
What about the sci-fi fear that robots will become smarter than us?
I like to call that robo-phobia. I think anything that people are not familiar with there’s a phobia attached to it. That is precisely why our very first HUBO was the shape of a 10-year-old boy. We took it to children’s museums and brought the technology in front of them and with parents. So they can see what’s involved and kind of dispel this robo-phobia, these myths.
Where are women in robotics?
We would definitely like to see more women involved with robotics but there definitely is a strong community of women roboticists. The ones that I know of are leaders in areas like disaster response, social robotics, medical robotics. They are there. We would definitely like to see more of them. I think it’s important. That is why we work with the National Science Foundation to try to include more people.
Paul Oh, Director, Drones and Autonomous Systems Lab at UNLV, and winner of the DARPA Robotics Challenge