Moshe Kam: The president's initiative emphasizes an aspect that was in the background for many years and which is now an explicit objective, and that is to have robots that are out in the human environment, cooperative with humans, becoming partners of humans in their activities, trying to understand their intentions. It represents a step up in the way we work with robots.
For example, we still pick up produce in the fields by hiring humans. What if I could have a couple of humans in the field along with 60 robots that look at what the human does, doing basic pattern recognition to recognize a fruit, and working together? If you told me this 20 years ago, I'd say this is just science fiction. But now, this is the time to actually do this.
I can see many applications in the environment of people who are handicapped. I can see assistance in areas of high risk. We already have some robots that go into hazardous areas like nuclear power plants to check things out, analyzing the situation.
You can see a place for robots like that working with policemen on the street. You go out of the police car, and several robots come out with you, essentially going into areas that you don't want to go into, sending information back to you, helping you understand the environment and the situation.
Another example: Did you go see fireworks at the Art Museum? And could you use your cellphone? Many people could not. There was too much congestion on the Fourth of July. If we were able to launch several flying robots above this crowd, they could act as a temporary relay station for cellular telecommunications. What happened near the Art Museum on the Fourth of July is an indicator that next time we have a national emergency, the system may be overwhelmed. There may be an opportunity here to train for those situations.
When there's a disaster like an earthquake and buildings have collapsed, we can have crawling robots that can get into spaces to reach people.
Q: What is the potential economic impact of robotics research? Will some people lose jobs to robots?
Kam: There is a clear possibility that robots will increase efficiency, that a person who works with robots will do better, quicker work. I'm not of the belief that over the long haul, technology replaces jobs. Usually what technology does - it frees humans from those aspects that are repetitive, requiring physical exertion. It frees us to do other things. Overall, when you look at the advent of new technology and devices, they've replaced some human jobs but created more in designing, manufacturing, and selling them. Will a robot replace me as a professor of electrical engineering in the next 10 to 15 years? I don't think so. It may help me grade my papers and keep organized, but I don't think it will replace those jobs requiring high levels of intelligence and cognition.
Q: Do you imagine a future where robots will live, so to speak, among us, and people will interact with robots in the same way they do with humans?
Kam: I think so! I think that the day will come when I come to my office at Drexel and a robot asks me what do I want in my tea this morning, and this would be pretty neat.
Q: Why do you think scientists and nonscientists are fascinated by robots?
Kam: There is a fair amount of romanticism surrounding robots, since the very early days when Karel Capek, a Czech writer, wrote in 1921 a play called R.U.R., and he coined the term robot. Since that time, and even earlier in the Frankenstein stories, we have been fascinated by these humanlike machines. We are primarily fascinated with the thinking that one day we can program them in such a way that they would have intelligence of their own - that they might have emotions like love and hate. Despite the great developments we've had, we're still quite far from this scenario.
Q: Do you have a favorite robot?
Kam: Yes, it's a snake robot developed by my former student Richard Primerano. What I like about it is that it is very smart about gaps. When it comes to a gap, it goes into it a little bit to find out if there is enough of a support on the other side to cross over the gap. If it finds that the gap is too big, it retreats and tries to find another way. Otherwise, it moves forward. There are very few robots that can do that without falling over. It has ultrasonic and infrared sensors. We have many robots in my lab, and that one is my favorite.
Contact staff writer Helen Shen at 215-854-4802 or HShen@philly.com