Robotics: The Android Dreams Special Session

On Wednesday evening in front of a packed ballroom, George Bekey welcomed SIGGRAPH “to the age of autonomous robots.”

Thus the “Android Dreams” special session on the development of more capable and autonomous robotic systems was introduced. This session, which had been in the planning for some time, allowed provided SIGGRAPH attendees to see, first-hand, a new class of robotic technology that incorporates intelligence and dexterity to provide more capable robotic interactions.

The session included presentations by Stan Winston (Stan Winston Studio), Cynthia Breazeal (MIT Media Lab), Robert Ambrose (NASA Johnson Space Center), Helen Greiner (iRobot Corporation), and Masahiro Fujita (Sony Digital Creatures Lab). The presentations presented an overview of several robotics projects, though not necessarily of the entire state of field of autonomous robotic systems.

The first presentation was by Stan Winston, who documented the sophisticated use of animatronics in the motion picture industry. Stan described the process of making these animatronic wonders. He explained how robots could aid an actor, because the "best acting is reacting"; thus realistic robots go beyond special effects to make realistic interactions. He explained that this was not his sole reason for collaboration and that even if the research were not productive, “it would be the coolest thing.”

Although his robots lack autonomy, Stan detailed the exceptional amount of work and complexity required to make and control these robots. The organic looking androids produced by his group are intricately detailed and include innumerable controls of the joints and face; even the eyes are fully controllable. To add to the realization of his robots, Stan showed the art involved in design the appearance of the robot to be as realistic as possible. As wondrous as his animatronic robots are, they currently lack autonomy; to pursue the dream of truly autonomous robots, Stan Winston Studios is currently collaborating with Cynthia Breazeal's group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This understanding of organic design is what led Cynthia Breazeal, the second speaker, to contact Stan and initiate the collaboration, which has resulted in a new robot named Leonardo. Cynthia opened her talk by detailing some of the cognitive models that underlie her work and the development of Emotional Artificial Intelligence. She showed how these techniques were applied to the robot Kismit and how people react to robots gestures (e.g., frowning) even when the robots are communicating in sounds and not an understandable language.

The third speaker, Robert Ambrose, discussed the development of an intelligent, dexterous astronaut-like robot named Robonaut. This robotic assistant for astronauts was developed by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to aid future astronauts in their missions.

Robert detailed how the depiction of robots in movies has advanced from exceptionally mechanical droids to highly intelligent and capable human-like replacements. However, he pointed out that most robots in the movies are not nearly as dexterous as those present today. Robert also outlined how his current research is part of the DARPA MARS (Mobile Autonomous Robot Software) program that Cynthia’s work is associated with.

The forth speaker, Helen Greiner, gave a description of robotics work being performed by the iRobot corporation and how these robots were designed to same “time, money, and lives.” For example, she showed and demonstrated a robot that aids soldiers searching caves by putting the robots at risk instead of the soldiers. She also demonstrated the Roomba vacuum cleaner and discussed how it uses a sweeper/vacuum design that resulted in a smaller machine that could vacuum underneath furniture and even on uncarpeted flooring.

The last presentation, which was probably the most well known about, was Masahiro Fujita’s presentation of Sony’s OPEN-R software architecture and the SDR-4X biped. The talk described how this architecture, which can be obtained at no cost from the Internet, controls both the Aibo and SDR-4X robots.

After the presentation Masahiro demonstrated the robot and showed it dancing to a especially composed song to the audiences delight. Linux fans might note that this demonstration was on of the few at SIGGRAPH that used this popular open-source operating system.

This concluded this two-hour session and demonstrated how advances in hardware (Moore’s Law) and computing algorithms, arguably driven in part by the need for improved graphics performance, are advancing robotics and other fields. It along with other robotic events, which included the Open-R working group Birds-of-a-Feather and a course on the application of electronics to artistic projects, provide evidence that SIGGRAPH is growing in scope and breath.







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Last updated 7/30/03.

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All photos courtesy of Cybershot digital cameras generously loaned by SONY.