Almost Human: Making Robots Think
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A remarkable, intense portrait of the robotic subculture and the challenging quest for robot autonomy.
The high bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is alive and hyper night and day with the likes of Hyperion, which traversed the Antarctic, and Zoe, the world’s first robot scientist, now back home. Robot Segways learn to play soccer, while other robots go on treasure hunts or are destined for hospitals and museums. Dozens of cavorting mechanical creatures, along with tangles of wire, tools, and computer innards are scattered haphazardly. All of these zipping and zooming gizmos are controlled by disheveled young men sitting on the floor, folding chairs, or tool cases, or huddled over laptops squinting into displays with manic intensity. Award-winning author Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture, following these young roboticists and their bold conceptual machines from Pittsburgh to NASA and to the most barren and arid desert on earth. He makes intelligible their discoveries and stumbling points in this lively behind-the-scenes work.
This is a bit more effective than Asimo, who was now nodding at me, but a long way from emanating a real-life connection. Asimo, now obviously bored, turned and stomped away, sensors and motors—Asimo has been constructed with 27 degrees of freedom (joints)—whooshing and buzzing, clearly a rejection of my low-level intellectual discourse. My encounter with Asimo occurred in 2003 during the American Open. But Asimo continues to improve, as Honda pours millions of dollars into its development.
jitters. Wagner and Heys watch as Wettergreen struggles to find a place on Zoë for a white plastic slab—called a “white reference”—which resembles an oversized cutting board or serving platter. “It is 98 percent white, and believe it or not, it cost $1,500.” Zoë is equipped with a VNIR—a visible near-infrared spectrometer, which measures energy in order to assess minerology. The white reference determines how much sunlight or energy from the sun is there to begin with before the spectrometer
demonstrate. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Peeing on a Rock AT THE DESIGNATED SITE THE AFTERNOON BEFORE OPS, Zoë is lowered from its chariot, powered up, and tested. The wireless network is established on the roof of the van—the base station—to communicate with Zoë at a discreet 100-yard distance. The pan-tilt unit directing the SPI is tested. Everyone is ready to start. Excitement and trepidation are in the air. But no one really knows what is going to happen. How can the OPS be OPS if Zoë is not
its way across the desert, its electric motors whining relentlessly, its knobby tire wheels tattooing the terrain with lines of sculpted imprints—despite the ongoing power supply problem. The robot wranglers like Chris Williams and Stuart Heys tailing after Zoë now had to hustle to keep up with it, since the speed had increased significantly. And in 2005, they were giving Zoë more space than ever before, not as much as Red Whittaker might have liked, but a kilometer distance as Wettergreen had
work together and contribute to one another’s projects! What could be more desirable?” Morris has also become a skillful salsa dancer, so good that he travels around the community to give salsa demonstrations. “West Virginia is very isolated. You are in the mountains with families who have not been anywhere else. Here I have done things that I never imagined I would ever do. In West Virginia, if I told people that I would some day work with robots and do salsa dancing, my relatives, neighbors,