Hans Moravec: Robots Rising

March 08th, 1999 | Category: Interviews

Hans MoravecHans Moravec has been building robots since 1963: his first at age ten. His 1988 book, Mindchildren began a public access to the ideas of his speculative science. His current volume, Robot continues these conjectures of a future robot-run world with fervor. Moravec holds that a robot-reign is inevitable and that it won’t be so bad.

Hans Moravec is currently a Principal Research Scientist in the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University.

Roy Christopher: Your new book offers a rich abundance of evidence that robots will surpass us in the next hundred years or so. What would you say to people who still don’t believe?

Hans Moravec: Just wait and see! I’ve promised a next book in 2008, by which time the first specialized utility robots should be crawling around many homes. If that doesn’t convince, them by the time of the following book in 2018, there should be a first generation of rigidly programmed universal robots, and a dawning second generation of ones that learn like Skinner’s rats. Soon after that, the skeptics will be able to argue their cases with wily conversational programs.

RC: Speaking of which, are you and Roger Penrose friends? Having read The Emporers New Mind, your constant jabs at him in Robot were hilarious.

HM: I have great respect for Penrose, having long been interested in his physics and mathematical work. We’ve met a number of times and places in the last decade and had nice conversations, and gave joint talks. But boy, did he grab the wrong end of the stick in his AI arguments!

RC: Are you planning to do all you can to help the “Robot Revolution” on?

HM: I’ve been interested in the idea that life and intelligence can result from properly assembling inanimate matter since at least age four, when my father helped me build a “dancing man” using parts from a mechanical construction set. Several science fair robots, two graduate degrees for mobile robots and twenty additional years of work on making mobile robots practical later, I’m engaged in research towards commercial smart industrial transport and cleaning machines by 2005, and then even smarter home vacuum cleaners, and all that follows! In short, “Yes, in every day, in every way.”

RC: What are you working on currently?

HM: Our goal is laboratory prototype sensor-based software for utility mobile robots for industrial transport, floor maintenance, security etc., that matches the months-between-error reliability of existing industrial robots without requiring their expensive worksite preparation or site-specific programming. Our machines will navigate employing a dense 3D awareness of their surroundings, be tolerant of route surprises, and be easily placed by ordinary workers in entirely new routes or work areas. The long-elusive combination of easy installation and reliability should greatly expand cost-effective niches for mobile robots, and make possible a growing market that can itself sustain further development.

RC: What advice would you give aspiring roboticists out there?

HM: There are starting to be university programs in robotics, but the field is very new and still shaping itself. It will need input from almost everywhere. First of all, of course, robots need to be built and given basic programming, so computer science and engineering are useful. But as they become more common, designers, psychologists, and people knowledgeable in the application areas will become more important. After 2010, some expert will have the write robot application programs for every task we want robots to do, and pretty soon that will cover just about every area of human activity, and beyond!

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