Robots that fight fires, cars that drive themselves, clothes that prevent illness—are they the stuff of science fiction? Or are they more likely than we think? “Life in 2030,” a one-hour special from the radio series Engineers of the New Millennium, explores the latest discoveries to give listeners an idea of how technology will shape our lives in the not-too-distant future.
How Will Humans and Robots Coexist?
Lisa Raffensperger: You know the adage “Form follows function”? So asking how our robots will look is just another way of asking: What will our robots do? I went to Los Angeles to meet one of today’s brightest roboticists—and his star robot—to answer that question.
Lisa Raffensperger: You smell the Los Angeles Korean Festival before you see it—billows of smoke rising from enormous grills, skillets of dumplings…
Lisa Raffensperger: …fried potato pancakes. This small park in central L.A., for one weekend a year, becomes a fairground. Vendors sell food, Korean groceries, and makeup. And L.A.’s Korean population—the largest outside Korea—turns out by the thousands. But in one corner of the hubbub is something quite different.
Anonymous student 1: I want a leg battery. I want to stick a leg battery in here so we can run longer.
Anonymous student 2: So right’s done. You want me to put it in? There’s a specific order, but you gotta go plug, in, base. I got it. That’s the most annoying motor to change.
Lisa Raffensperger: Two of Dennis Hong’s postgrad students take turns working on a 5-foot-tall robot—CHARLI [for Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence], who you’ll meet properly a little later on. They’re getting him ready for his big stage act later this afternoon. His white chest plate is removed, exposing his CPU, or central processing unit, the hardware you can think of as the brain of the robot. He has white arms and a smallish egg-shaped plastic head with a black faceplate. But apart from those, he looks like a contraption from an advanced erector set—all gears, motors, and metal beams.
CHARLI was America’s first true full-size humanoid when he was created back in 2010. Compared to bots like Honda’s Asimo, CHARLI’s strength is that he’s sort of the cheap-and-cheerful type—he weighs only about 30 pounds, and he’s designed to be one of the least costly humanoids out there.
He’s also, as it turns out, the world soccer champion among robots. Bryce Lee, a Ph.D. student in Hong’s lab, explains.
Bryce Lee: It’s got a couple of sensors. One is a standard USB webcam that’s in his head that he uses to look around, find ball and lines, goals. Then it figures out how it wants to move in order to kick it to score. It’s also got an inertial measurement unit, kind of like your inner ear, a balance sensor. Can tell if it’s tilted and compensate. When it runs soccer mode, it’s 100 percent autonomous. It’s actually better playing soccer autonomous than it is with us remote-controlling it. We’re pretty bad at it.
Lisa Raffensperger: But CHARLI hasn’t flown all the way to L.A. from the lab’s home at Virginia Tech to play soccer. He’s here to bust a move, to show off his dance steps.
The Korean pop song “Gangnam Style” had only weeks prior become a global sensation, and just for this occasion, CHARLI has been taught to do its signature dance. There’s only one problem. The night before, instead of busting a move, CHARLI busted a motor. There are already tiny audience members clamoring…
Kid: What happened yesterday?
Coleman: He died. He started.
Lisa Raffensperger: Will he dance today, they all want to know.
Anonymous: He’s gonna work at 4 o’clock, definitely. Definitely.
Lisa Raffensperger: Since Hong founded the lab in 2004, RoMeLa—the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech—has moved increasingly toward humanoid robots. That’s no accident, says Hong.
Dennis Hong: If a robot needs to live with us in environment designed for humans, then I claim the robot needs to have size and shape of a human. The reason being when you open a door, the door handle is at certain height, because that’s ergonomics—it’s designed for humans. Your step size has a certain height for humans to walk on the steps. So if robot is not humanoid form, it won’t be able to navigate an environment designed for humans.
Lisa Raffensperger: Not all of the team’s projects are humanoids, but two of their biggest are. One is called SAFFIR—for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot. The bot is being designed now on a [U.S.] Navy grant. The other is THOR, for Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot.That one will be entered into the DARPA Robotics Challenge, what Hong calls the—
Dennis Hong: —biggest, boldest, most expensive, craziest, most-challenging-yet-most-important-in-my-opinion robotics project in the history of humankind.
Lisa Raffensperger: Exactly the kind of burden these humanoid shoulders can bear. At least, that’s what Hong’s betting on.
Bryce Lee: Watch out—you don’t want to be too close to the robot! He might kick you.
Kid: Oh, yeah, he’s a soccer champion, I remember. I don’t wanna get kicked in the face by a robot.
Lisa Raffensperger: It’s almost go time, and CHARLI is doing his first and only practice run. He’ll be operated by remote control, but still there are myriad things that could go wrong.
Lisa Raffensperger: His feet set wide, he starts with the side-to-side rocking…then some galloping, feet firmly planted…culminating in the lassoing motions of the song’s music video. It’s a hit.
Lisa Raffensperger: It’s gotta be said: The robot’s got rhythm. Now let’s just hope he’s not got stage fright too.
Lisa Raffensperger: The novelty of robots will wear off in coming decades, and some of their entertainment value with it. They might be as familiar as the postman.
Dennis Hong: [The year] 2030, for example, you buy something online, and it’s not going to be a brown truck delivering your boxes but probably unmanned aerial vehicles that’s going to drop this package in front of your door.
Lisa Raffensperger: Still, robots will be far too expensive for ordinary domestic use, Hong says.
Dennis Hong: Are we going to have humanoid robots walking around in our home? Probably not. You’ll see these expensive robots used where money doesn’t matter. Medical robotics, military robotics—when people’s lives are involved, cost doesn’t matter.
Lisa Raffensperger: And this part is maybe overlooked in our computer-mad culture: Hong says it’s really the nuts and bolts of robots that will hold them back.
Dennis Hong: If you look at technology that involves physical systems like cars or anything that needs to move machinery, it doesn’t grow as fast as information technology. We’ve been talking about flying cars since when? Do we have flying cars today? No, we don’t. So by 2030 I believe we’ll have electronics software up to par, but what’s going to be lagging is physical systems.
Lisa Raffensperger: Hong’s group is working on some such mechanisms, taking inspiration from the way humans walk.
Dennis Hong: We’re coming up with big departure from the traditional humanoid architecture, developed these new types of actuator that extend and contract like human muscle, titanium springs for impedance control. This is high-risk, high-payoff project—it’s ridiculously difficult. But if we can succeed, it’s going to be a revolutionary change in how we can build walking robots.
Lisa Raffensperger: It’s CHARLI’s moment in the sun. Dennis Hong walks out and introduces him, and Charli steps forward right on cue.
CHARLI: Hello, everyone. My name is CHARLI, the first autonomous full-size humanoid robot from the United States made by Dr. Dennis Hong at Virginia Tech. Welcome to the 39th Los Angeles Korean Festival. I hope you are having a great time.
Lisa Raffensperger: In Korean, Hong says how CHARLI is a soccer champ but will today be trying something new. Then, CHARLI’s feet spread wide, cue the music, cellphone cameras already in the air.
Lisa Raffensperger: CHARLI executes every move perfectly, the audience bobbing along in time. The video is plastered on YouTube. You could even call it a vision of the future—but the reality will be much more interesting if Dennis Hong has anything to do with it. I’m Lisa Raffensperger.