University of Vermont associate professor Josh Bongard talks about what robot engineers can learn from nature, why he won a prestigious presidential award and if we should really worry about a robot uprising. (This is an extended version of the interview that appears on page 72 of the Spring 2014 edition of Vermont Life.)
VL: When did you first make the connection between technology and the natural world?
JB: Well, I played a lot of video games as a kid but I was also interested in building things and I loved the outdoors and animals. I was always fascinated by animals: how they move and how complex their bodies are, but incredibly efficient and fast. Machines, to this day, are still relatively clunky. Hollywood showed us all these fantastically amazing machines like big metal cats and humans but we didn’t actually have them and why not? That question motivated me. I was an undergraduate in computer science when I read a book that opened my eyes to borrowing ideas from nature and using them to build machines. I never looked back.
VL: Now you use computers to evolve robots based on the model of natural selection. Why is that a good way to develop robots?
JB: Humans have figured out how to build better cars, airplanes, the international space station, but autonomous robots are much more complicated than any of those machines for one reason: they need to move and live alongside us in the real world without a human leading them. These kinds of robots are different from industrial robots, which are designed to do the same thing over and over again in a controlled environment. The biggest challenge is not to get a robot to do one thing well, but to get one robot to be able to do a dozen things well enough. An autonomous robot has to be adaptive because its world is always changing around it. Again, humans and animals are good at changing what we do based on circumstances. We don’t yet know how to make machines that do that, but Mother Nature, or natural selection, has produced adaptive machines for billions of years and they’re very good, so why not borrow that idea and teach the computer how to evolve robots for us?
VL: And what does this look like in practice?
JB: In evolutionary robotics, with our input, computers create hordes of robots and then we tell the computer to select for certain traits, like you’d select for milk capacity in a cow. So we might tell the computer to select for speed and agility and avoidance of obstacles and self-damage, or the ability to reach for an object, distinguish between objects and put the blue objects to the left and red to the right. Computers are relentless, tireless; they can test things over and over again. The results aren’t always what we anticipate. We had a robot with four legs and challenged it to learn to walk. We thought it would evolve to walk like a horse or a dog, but it moves more like a break dancer doing the worm.
VL: What might adaptive, autonomous robots be able to do for us?
JB: It’s hard to say. If you had asked computer people in the ’80s what the killer app would be, no one would have said e-mail or Facebook. I imagine it’ll be simple things like helping cut the lawn, clean out your gutters, resurface your driveway, or fill in potholes. Those sorts of simple things don’t seem to require much intelligence but you definitely need adaptation because no home’s gutters are the same, no one pothole is like the next.
VL: You’ve said that it’s harder to teach a robot to walk on uneven ground than it is to teach it to win a master-level chess game. Why is that?
JB: In the 1960s and ’70s we thought we could build machines that would walk and talk long before we would make machines that could beat chess grand masters. Our intuitions about intelligence are wrong. Chess is easy from a machine’s point of view because there are only so many options. You have a dozen pieces you can move in a finite number of ways. A machine can sift through all of the combinations, permutations and repercussions. If you think about walking over uneven terrain, humans have billions of muscle groups and we move all of them together in the right way so that we don’t trip. All the different ways you can move your muscles are an infinite set of possibilities. That’s hard for a machine to do even though it seems easy to us because we’re the end-result of a billion years of hacking by Mother Nature.
VL: What about the fear that the robots will someday turn against us?
JB: Long before we have to deal with the ethical issue of the robot uprising, there are lots of other ethical issues about autonomous machines, like unmanned drones in theaters of war. Those drones are not autonomous yet, they’re being driven by someone back here, but we’re very close to the point where we no longer need the person to push the button. In the next few years we’re going to have to decide as a society whether we will allow a drone to shoot without requiring human confirmation. It’s much more important and relevant and close than the robot uprising. If you look at technology like smart phones and other mobile devices, it’s not machines rising up and taking over, it’s that our relationship with technology is closer and more complicated. We use it more and it’s closer to us in a literal and figurative sense. Machines and humans, it’s not going to be us and them; it’s us together. We’re still figuring that out.
VL: Do you have a favorite movie robot?
JB: Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the killer machine in the space ship. It was difficult to figure out Hal’s motives. Hal was a metaphor for human relationships; you’re not sure what somebody else wants, or is trying to do, or trying to communicate to you. And if we create machines that seem to be intelligent, will we be able to connect with them, metaphorically? Will we understand their motives and what will it tell us about our own motives and human relationships?
VL: In 2010, you received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for which you traveled to the White House and met the President. Why do you think your work was recognized?
JB: The current administration is interested in robotics and things like 3D printing as a way to re-energize manufacturing in the U.S. There is also President Obama’s bigger vision about recreating the Sputnik moment, when the Russian satellite Sputnik went overhead and everyone was at the same time afraid and excited and a lot of young people went into NASA and the space race began. Since then, excitement about science and technology has waned somewhat. The President asked us, “There’s something about your work that excites young people. Can you take your work and get out into the community and involve young people in it?”