It's one thing for mechatronics experts to cluster among
themselves, sharing insights on their various disciplines. It's quite
another for someone like Eric Gradman, a roboticist at a company called
Applied Minds in Glendale, CA to spread the word about his passion for
robotics. He spoke at an event called Mindshare in mid-October in Los
Angeles, which brings together on a monthly basis an audience as
diverse as engineers, technologists, artists and dancers.
Of course, Gradman is not your ordinary roboticist. Sure, he has a
master's degree in robotics from the University of Southern California.
He believes robotics encompasses mechatronics. "When I talk about why I
enjoy robotics so much, I say, when I'm confronted with a problem, only
in robotics do I get the choice of solving it in hardware, software or
But he's also an interactive artist and a circus performer.
(Admittedly, roboticists and circus performers both employ a basic
understanding of physics in their work).
Nor is Mindshare your ordinary event. According to one of the
founders, "We're intrigued by the cross pollination that arises from
gathering individuals who might not otherwise interact. It is an
energetic mix of open-minded people from architects to programmers to
writers to painters to engineers and all others in between."
Clearly, Gradman, Mindshare and mechatronics all share a multidisciplinary view of the world.
Still, Gradman chose a unique perspective with which to discuss
robotics with the Mindshare audience. His presentation was titled "The
Perils of Robotics: When Good Robots Do Bad Things." When he came up
with the title, he wanted to avoid giving a dry presentation about
robotics. "I love robotics," he says, "but it may have been that I was
having a particularly frustrating week at work, because I got to
thinking about the many ways that robots can fail."
So why do good robots do bad things? "Robots can misbehave," says
Gradman, who started out his presentation with the example of Kenji
Urada, one of the first workers ever to be killed by a robot, "but they
can't be evil or stupid. It comes down to a human failure to design
around a problem. Robots fail because we don't know how to solve all
the problems (in robotics). We don't understand how to make them
Gradman says there are multiple ways robots foul up basic activities they're supposed to understand, including:
Sensing their environment. When robots use lasers
as sensors to understand their environment, they can be fooled by
reflective materials. The laser can be diffused to a point where it
can't recognize an object. This is fine, Gradman says, except very
expensive sports cars tend to have exactly the kind of paint job that
fool the lasers. "In a parking lot full of cars, the robot will run
into the most expensive one," says Gradman. "I think that in the
future, to avoid hostile robots, people will wear clothing made of
silver lamé and mylar."
Modeling their environment. Gradman works
frequently with computer vision, so he's come to understand robots'
limitations in this area. In his presentation, he showed examples of a
robot accurately tracking the face of a woman who's moving around a
room. But he also shows an example of a robot using standard tracking
algorithms that is fooled into thinking a smiley face painted on a
human hand is another human face.
Planning a course of action. Sometimes engineers
ask robots to take an action that requires too much flexibility in too
small a space or too short a time, Gradman says. "All of a sudden the
robot is asked to do something that's both fast and impossible, and
without safeguards you could put people in danger." And sometimes
robots just don't do what they're supposed to.
Acting to achieve the goal. And sometimes there's just hardware failure. Gradman included in his presentation video
of Honda's Asimo robot ascending a set of stairs, turning to descend a
second set of stairs, and toppling forward catastrophically.
Why are robots prone to failure? The answer is simple, in Gradman's
eyes. "Robotics is still about human beings putting together robot
systems. We become part of the robot for a brief period of time, and
idiots can cause more damage through robots than any robot can by
For all his humorous examples of robotics failure, Gradman is highly
optimistic about the future of robotics. In September, he attended IROS
2008 (Intelligent Robots and Systems) in Nice, France. "It's very clear
from listening to all the talks there that we are rocketing ahead in
state-of-the-art sensing, planning and modeling," Gradman says.
"Processing power is increasing, so we can build more nuanced
algorithms and more sophisticated mathematical techniques to deal with
interesting exceptions in data. Sensors are getting better, and our
methods of dealing with the sensor data are getting better. Brilliant
researchers are making great inroads in all these things, so we're on
the path to solving a lot of the problems I talked about."