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Rodney Brooks

Rodney Brooks


Rodney Brooks is a Professor of Robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he also the directs the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Unquestionably, Brooks is the figurehead and principle leader of the embodied robotics movement.

Since his work was first published in 1986, Brooks has brought forth a new era in artificial intelligence. Instead of focusing on symbolic processing, which classical artificial intelligence was modeled on, he prioritized robotic architectures which were biologically-inspired. That meant focusing on sensorimotor and perceptual abilities– the capabilities an intelligent agent needs to interact successfully with the real world.

Brooks was also the first to point out that programming and embodying sensorimotor intelligence was far more challenging than programming basic symbolic reasoning skills. Thus, he argued that complex intelligence must ultimately be built out of those sensorimotor capabilities rather than from symbolic reasoning systems.

His classic article on this subject is titled Elephants Don’t Play Chess. His canonical books include the insightful Flesh and Machines, as well as Cambrian Intelligence. He is also a great popularizer of the subject, and has been featured in motion picture documentaries such as in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

Some of his new work is in developing low cost robots that will empower workers and evolve the world’s labor markets.

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In this recent NY Times article, we get asked: “What happened to all of those early promises of having cogent robots, fully or partially integrated into our society, helping us out with all of our daily tasks?” Where are our robot maids, like in The Jetsons? Robots to dramatically and obnoxiously warn us of impending dangers, such as in Lost in Space? Robot pets? It’s already just about 8 years after Stanley Kubrick’s ominous prediction of 2001, so where are they?

‘Artificial intelligence’ has become a radical misnomer with the focus more on the ‘artificial’ rather than the ‘intelligence’. Cutting edge roboticists at the MIT robotics laboratory have an astute answer. Quite simply, early models of artificial intelligence took it for granted what seem to us to be simple bodily tasks, motor functions and perceptive abilities. It turns out that those are actually the most difficult kinds of abilities to program.

If cognition is fundamentally embodied, then it’s no surprise that intelligence hasn’t emerged in robots. Before you can have real, versatile intelligence, you have to master simple motor tasks in non-structured environments. It turns out our ability to do things like reach and grab for objects or walk through a changing environment has more to do with higher cognition than anything else. And so far, we can’t even put together a robot with the same motor capabilities of a newborn; or a cockroach, for that matter.

On the bright side, there’s also no foreseeable danger of assassin terminators taking over the world, either.

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