Oy, Robot!

Are we doomed to some postapocalyptic nightmare in which robots rule the planet? Roboticists Henrik Hautop Lund and Rodney Brooks square off.

Henrik Hautop Lund

Professor at the University of Southern Denmark’s Maersk Institute and former head of the LEGO Lab


Rodney Brooks

Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and cofounder of iRobot Corp.

Resolved: In the next century, robots will take over the planet.

Lund: We are very far from the intelligent, autonomous robots known from science fiction. But I see a lot of developments that will make a huge impact on our daily lives in the future. Indeed, we have a responsibility to develop robot technology into some sensible application of high social value (as opposed to the American robotics community, which is guided largely by military funding). For instance, in my university lab and at my Entertainment Robotics company, we are (with various partners) developing robotic spin-offs for teaching creativity in developing countries in Africa, for rehabilitation of elderly people with dementia, for physiotherapy, for playware to fight the obesity problem, and so forth.

Brooks: It all depends on what we mean by “take over” and “planet.” If we mean “take over” in the Hollywood sense of robots getting impatient with us humans making bad decisions and deciding that we are redundant (hmmm, reminds me of my teenagers…), then I agree–we are not going to see that. However, I think computers have “taken over” our lives in the Western world, and even, but less unpleasantly, the Third World. Robots will do the same.

And now to “planet.” Yes, my research group is funded in part by NASA. Why?

To develop robots that we can send to the moon and to Mars to prepare habitats for humans before they arrive, and to take care of facilities once humans have left. The robots will be the permanent residents–so they will indeed have taken over.

Lund: It’s crucial to understand the relationship between body (hardware) and brain (software). For space exploration, the body may be more important: We would want to pack robotic artifacts for the launch, then allow them to unpack themselves where they are to perform their mission. Such flexibility could be obtained with something like our ATRON modules. A robot might be composed of 100 modules that each can process, communicate with neighbors, and move together. Such a robot can change its own form to adapt to different tasks, such as rescue work after earthquakes.


Brooks: But the limiting factor in such approaches has been the physical strength of the joints; practical robots have relied on large macrostructures to provide strength. Biological systems do not have this limitation, since they are built of systems that rely on tensional integrity, like a buckyball.

Now how does this relate to the question before us: “Will robots take over the planet?” The hard-material version of nanotechnology posits small robots that self-reproduce and then get out of hand. But this nanotechnology faces the problem I described above; there is no evidence (yet) that such machines will work. It is much more likely that atomic-scale robots will have bodies held together with a form of tensional integrity. So most of today’s research on multimodule robots (like ATRON) will not be the direction that is ultimately taken as a practical matter.

I think the way forward will see a merger of biological materials and robotics. At our lab, Tom Knight is building microbial robots by splicing standard “parts” into a DNA string, effectively allowing a program to digitally control protein production in the cell. His “robots,” based on an E. coli chassis, communicate, move about, and sense their environment. And he can build a million of them overnight.