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The Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute

on Mon, 06/24/2013 - 00:00

Almost Human: Making Robots Think
When it comes to robotics, Carnegie Mellon University is one of the world-renowned leaders within the field. In 1979, for instance, CMU established a Robotics Institute as part of its curriculum, the first for any university in the country, and many of its graduates have gone on to work for NASA, while other alumni have started their own companies dedicated to the development of “personal robots.”

The Robotics Institute itself is more than just about education, however, but offers a hands-on experience as well, tackling issues and creating prototypes for various wings of the United States government. CMU robots have also found success at the small handful of competitions sponsored by DARPA, and the university’s faculty members were the original organizers of RoboCup, in which teams of robots face each in games of soccer.

Author Lee Gutkind spent six years at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute during the first decade of the Twenty First Century, following the projects under development, going into the field with the various teams of scientists, and obtaining a first-hand understanding of the mechanics of the research facility. His resulting book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), is thus not strictly about the cutting-edge breakthroughs within the field of robotics but a study of the men and women at CMU who are at the forefront of those advancements. While Gutkind does indeed offer overviews of the mechanics of the various creations of the Robotics Institute during his time there, it’s ultimately the people that matter more than their metal-encased counterparts.

The best and the brightest have been part of Carnegie Mellon University from the very beginning. The Computer Science Department—which the Robotics Institute is associated with—was originally founded by Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Smith, the “father of artificial intelligence,” and Allen Newell, one of the first scientists to use computer simulations to better understand the human mind. It was future dean Raj Reddy, meanwhile, who came up with the idea of a Robotics Institute and persuaded the Westinghouse Electric Corporation to donate five million dollars for its initial founding in 1979.

Reddy was assisted in those early days by William “Red” Whittaker, the “father of field robotics.” Along with fellow roboticist David Wettergreen, Whittaker is one of the primary focusses of Almost Human.

“Whittaker is a visionary type,” Lee Gutkind writes. “He gets his kicks out of being somewhere first. He is charismatic and can motivate people. Whittaker’s colleagues use the word ‘magician’ when referring to him—he makes things that are absolutely impossible, possible. Whittaker believes that the world presents a series of monumental problems, which only monumental change and daring technological revolution can solve. Wettergreen, on the other hand, is the make-it-happen type. He is also visionary, but is less reliant on the power of personality. His focus is on building teams and selecting managers who can turn visions into reality, opportunity into productivity.”

Red Whittaker is often motivated by real world events. It was under his guidance, for instance, that CMU created the Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle, which inspected Three Miles Island in 1983 to confirm that the sealed-off sections of the crippled nuclear power plant were safely secured while likewise performing additional clean-up work. Another robot, CoreSampler, later drilled core samples to help determine how far the resulting radioactivity had penetrated the concrete walls of the facility.

After the fatal disaster of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, meanwhile, Whittaker became one of the leading advocates of using robots instead of live astronauts for space exploration and his efforts resulted in numerous research grants for Carnegie Mellon University.

That funding began to dry up after 9/11 when the priorities of the Bush Administration shifted from space exploration into the area of national defense instead. It was also around this time that David Wettergreen began having his own impact on the Robotics Institute. Wettergreen received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from CMU, and was a postdoctoral research associate at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, before joining the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University. His focus is on real-world applications like his counterpart Red Whittaker, but he also understands the limitations of the Robotics Institute—being an educational facility, it does not receive the “big government grants” awarded to professional establishments like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or the Johnson Space Center.

“We do developmental work,” Wettergreen explains in Almost Human. “We determine what is possible—we test future concepts.”

While Red Whittaker has the tendency to focus on the “big idea,” meanwhile, David Wettergreen understands the need for the smaller steps that ultimately lead to larger results. “One of the ways in which Red and I differ is that I view progress as incremental—there is an order for things,” Wettergreen told Lee Gutkind. “In the last century, exploration meant a bunch of people on a boat who went to Antarctica, got stuck in the ice for two years and ate penguins. Half of them survived and then came back and told the story. But with robotics, that doesn’t need to happen. We can explore previously impenetrable places and expand the frontier of knowledge further than anyone could have ever imagined—and no one has to die. This is what I want to do, expand the frontier of knowledge.”

Because of William “Red” Whittaker and David Wettergreen, a well as numerous other students and faculty members spotlighted within the pages of Almost Human, the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University has already “expanded the frontier of knowledge.” CMU may not receive the billion dollar grants that are awarded to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or the Johnson Space Center, but its accomplishments are just as important and noteworthy as those of its government-funded counterparts.

“We are a pretty transparent organization,” David Wettergreen explains in Almost Human: Making Robots Think. “People can come and visit us and see the chaos happening day and night. Mistakes are made. Corners are cut. They will also see a lot of excitement and energy and sometimes, incredible innovation. Having been one of those children, it amazes me what can be accomplished. There is something about this place that allows young and inexperienced people to ramp up fast.”

All of which makes the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute the ideal place to be when it comes to robotics research in the Twenty First Century.

Anthony Letizia

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