MIT conference looks at robotics breakthroughs — and big challenges ahead

Two of the "AlphaDog" robots made by Boston Dynamics, designed to carry equipment for the military. The Waltham company was acquired by Google last December.
Two of the "AlphaDog" robots made by Boston Dynamics, designed to carry equipment for the military. The Waltham company was acquired by Google last December.

Odds are good that no one at yesterday’s “Computing the Future” symposium at MIT, organized to mark the 50th anniversary of computer science and artificial intelligence research at the school, imagined they’d be watching a black-and-white video clip of Julia Child deftly slicing potatoes. But Matt Mason of Carnegie Mellon University showed it to make a point: technology is still far behind humans when it comes to perceiving and interacting with the world. Mason and other speakers who focused on the robotics field emphasized how many problems remain to be solved. Perhaps the biggest laugh of yesterday morning’s session came during another video clip, when the AlphaDog robot from Boston Dynamics, above, was pushed by an employee trying to test its stability — and promptly rolled over and smashed into a parked car. “That’s the new guy’s car,” another employee noted.

Rethink Robotics founder Rodney Brooks, a former MIT director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, said that progress has been slow in the robotics field because robotics researchers have had to create their own hardware and software. Things are speeding up now, however, with inexpensive cameras like Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect that robotics researchers can simply buy and use.

“Hardware availability leads to crowds of researchers, which leads to well-defined problems and solutions,” Brooks said. His company, Rethink, has already shipped about 200 of its Baxter robots to researchers. Their work, he said, may lead to more dextrous robotic hands.

Brooks defined the three big challenges facing the field of robotics as mobility, manipulation, and messiness. Robots still have trouble getting around environments built for humans; picking up and handling a wide range of objects; and coping with messiness and unpredictability of the real world.

Here’s a recent video from Rethink that shows its Baxter robot interacting with kids. It’s intended to emphasize how safely the robot can work with people — but you’ll also notice how much better the kids are at handling Legos and rolls of tape than the bot.

Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert picked up on the theme that “humans and animals set the bar very high for robots,” showing clips of people doing parkour and bighorn sheep clambering up mountains. But the robots Boston Dynamics has developed, largely with Pentagon funding, aren’t too shabby: the humanoid Atlas can walk upright over rubble, and BigDog, a quadruped, is unfazed by mud or icy pavement. (AlphaDog, a newer version of the BigDog bot, can even right itself when it falls over.) But walking on tough terrain is one thing, and actually figuring out where you need to go is another level. Some of Boston Dynamics’ current bots are guided by a remote operator, and some can “follow the leader,” ambling along a few yards behind a solider who is wearing a special beacon. They’re also pretty noisy, since most of them rely on gas-powered engines. Boston Dynamics was acquired last December by Google.

Here’s the audio from Raibert’s talk:

These were among the clips Raibert showed during his talk (though none of his robot “bloopers” are up on YouTube, like when AlphaDog dented the car. Or the clip in which Atlas struts on a treadmill to the tune of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”)

MIT professor Russ Tedrake said his team is trying to develop computer vision software to enable planes to fly as agilely as birds; Tedrake showed the video below of a glider that can spot a taut cable and perch on it, instead of requiring a runway. (The cable might also be a way for battery-powered autonomous aircraft to rest and recharge.) Tedrake predicted that today’s inexpensive consumer UAVs — many priced under $5000 — will spark an explosion of innovation as people explore how they can be used to sense things, map environments, and even carry payloads.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
Follow Scott on Twitter - Facebook - Google+