• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Future of Robots

Air Date: Week of

Charli, the humanoid robot (photo: Spectrum Magazine)

Robots are no longer confined to the world of science fiction. They currently play important role in industry, medicine and the military. Lisa Raffensperger from IEEE Spectrum Magazine, National Science Foundation special "Life in 2030" reports on the future of robots in our daily lives.


CURWOOD: Our humanoid friends and help-mates have just celebrated National Robotics week - with special events such as a Robot Zoo, and a Robot Block Party though of course we don't imagine the bots are drinking beer or wine. They may be the stuff of science fiction, but robots are now widely used in industry. And more and more they take on such dangerous tasks as defusing bombs or flying aircraft over hostile territory. To get some clues of how robots will interact with just plain folks, Lisa Raffensperger took a trip to Los Angeles. Her story comes to us from the IEEE Spectrum Magazine, National Science Foundation special, "Life in 2030".

RAFFENSPERGER: You smell the Los Angeles Korean Festival before you see it—billows of smoke rising from enormous grills, skillets of dumplings……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.

STUDENT 1: I want a leg battery. I want to stick a leg battery in here so we can run longer.

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.

RAFFENSPERGER: Two of Dennis Hong’s postgrad students take turns working on a five-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 cheapest 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.

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 on the field, find the lines on the field so he can figure out where it is and locate the 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 that it uses to figure out if its tilted forward a little bit so it will compensate by tilting itself backwards just to stay as balanced as possible during its walk. But 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 that.

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.

KID: Oh.

RAFFENSPERGER: Will he dance today, they all want to know.

MAN: He’s gonna work at 4 o’clock, definitely. Definitely. 
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.

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.

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...

HONG: ...biggest, boldest, most expensive, craziest, most-challenging-yet-most-important-in-my-opinion robotics project in the history of humankind.

RAFFENSPERGER: Exactly the kind of burden these humanoid shoulders can bear. At least, that’s what Hong’s betting on.

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.

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. 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. It’s gotta be said: The robot’s got rhythm. Now let’s just hope he’s not got stage fright too. 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.

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.

RAFFENSPERGER: Still, robots will be far too expensive for ordinary domestic use, Hong says.

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.

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.
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.

RAFFENSPERGER: Hong’s group is working on some such mechanisms, taking inspiration from the way humans walk.

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, they have built in 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. 

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.

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.

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.

CURWOOD: Lisa's story comes to us from the IEEE Spectrum Magazine, National Science Foundation special, "Life in 2030".



Original story on the Spectrum website

IEEE Spectrum online


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth