Why are robots so fascinating to kids and artificial intelligence engineers alike? Because "they act like they're alive," said Assistant Professor Gill A. Pratt, guest speaker at a May 21 press briefing for the new Robotics exhibition at the Museum of Science.
Those lifelike qualities "are incredibly compelling" and "the motivation behind most robotics' researchers," said Professor Pratt, director of the Leg Lab in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He went on to describe some of the ro-bots he and colleagues are working on.
For example, Trudy, a scale model of a small dinosaur, could answer scientists' questions about how the flesh-and-blood creature walked. But what's the real reason for building it? The graduate student working on Trudy "wants it to come alive," said Professor Pratt. "It's going to move and walk around and act like a dinosaur." First things first, however: last week Trudy stood up for the first time.
Researchers in the Leg Lab are also developing an artificial knee incorporating robotics that they hope will give users a natural walk. It could allow them, for example, to vary their walking speed for different terrains. "It's very hard to match Mother Nature, but that's what we're trying to do," said Professor Pratt of electrical engineering and computer science. "For those people who use prosthetics, the future is very, very bright."
The Robotics exhibit includes two robots with MIT connections. Odyssey, a yellow robotic submarine about six feet long developed by the Autonomous Underwater Vehicles Lab, is used to study the ocean. Once programmed, it requires no cable to the surface and no one inside.
Also at the exhibit is a robot developed by a team of students from MIT and Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School for a national contest held in April. At the National Robotics Championship, the robot vied with a variety of competitors to get the most balls into a "basket" at the center of a room.
Robotics, which opened May 22 and will continue through September 7, includes a variety of other robots and demonstrations. Said Professor Pratt, "I think it's a great exhibit. I'm certainly going to bring my kids here."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.