Why do we build robots that look like humans?
Answered by Rodney Brooks
  • Rodney Brooks

    Rodney Brooks

  1. Rodney Brooks Panasonic Professor of Robotics (emeritus), MIT


    In the book 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL was switched on on January 12th, 1992. I think in the movie it was a different date, 1997. But back on January 12th, 1992, I held a birthday party for HAL. It was his birth. I had all of my graduate students over and we had cake and champagne for HAL.

    Then we started realizing there was no HAL on the horizon. So we thought, "Well, we've got to fix this. We've got to build HAL." As we started thinking about building HAL, It wasn't going to be a spaceship. It wasn't going to be disembodied. HAL actually had to be able to do stuff. So what form should HAL take? It started off with just things like, "He's going to be a robot arm that could move around and pick up stuff." But then a couple of my graduate students said, "Why don't we make it look like a person so you know what to expect from it?"

    We built our first robot with human form, called Cog. It surprised us totally; people reacted to it as though it was human for at least for a few seconds. When the graduate students who had built the robot were working late at night and someone else was using it, and the robot would be sitting there doing something and look over at them, they would get disturbed as they were doing their work, and they would have a social response to the robot. So they started putting out partitions so the robot couldn't see them.

    Not because they thought the robot was smart and was seeing things about them, but they felt themselves compelled to make a social response to something with human form doing human-like processes. With the robot Domo over my shoulder, we pushed that even further, and had Domo interact with people at close quarters and act as an assistant.

    It was partially funded by NASA. NASA wanted a robot that would have the same form as astronauts so it could operate in the places that had been designed for astronauts in the space station. In fact there is a robot, a humanoid robot, up in the space station, in the International Space Station now, too, which is a humanoid robot and is completely compatible with everything in the space station because it has the same form as a human astronaut. NASA wasn't so interested in the social interactions that we were interested in, but people respond to something with a human form in a human-like way, and interaction becomes much more natural.

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