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Robots that make you think

The latest additions to the Robot Hall of Fame don't fit the usual industrial mold for mechanical manipulators - and one of them would strongly object to being included in the club. Nevertheless, there he is: Lieutenant Commander Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a fictional character who said, "I am an android, not a robot."

CBS Paramount
Commander Data was
portrayed by Brent Spiner
in "Star Trek: The Next
Generation." Photo
courtesy of CBS
Paramount Network
Television, a division of
CBS Studios.

The other inductees, announced today at the RoboBusiness Conference and Exposition in Boston, include the Raibert Hopper, a one-legged research robot; the NavLab 5 self-steering minivan; and the LEGO Mindstorms robotic toy kit.

The four fictional and real-life creations join an august group ranging from R2-D2 and C-3PO of "Star Wars" to the Mars Pathfinder robot and Sony's Aibo robotic dog. The program was created at Carnegie Mellon University in 2003 and has continued with fresh inductees in 2004 and 2006.

Every addition to the Hall of Fame has sparked discussions over what exactly it means to be a robot. Is a robot any gizmo that can move things around? Do vacuum cleaners, computers and cars count? Could some machines become too humanlike to be called robots?

In today's news release, Matt Mason, director of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, says this year's crop is notable because the real machines outnumber the fictional creations for the first time. "As much as we love fictional robots such as Data, those of us in the robotics field take heart when the real accomplishments of our colleagues get this well-deserved recognition," Mason said.

Not one of the real robots, however, conforms to the usual image of an assembly-line carmaker or even a life-size android:

  • Leg Lab / Marc Raibert

    The Raibert Hopper, developed by roboticist Marc Raibert in the 1980s, was an experimental contraption that shed light on the mechanics of dynamic balance. Unlike your typical robot, the Hopper had to keep moving to stay upright - just like humans. "The Raibert Hopper was the visionary effort that set the entire field of robotic locomotion in motion," Mason said. Researchers are still working on robots that walk like humans, but the payoffs from the Raibert Hopper aren't just limited to the robotic tribe: Just last week, a former colleague of Raibert's announced the creation of the first powered robotic ankle, which could make life a whole lot easier for people with prosthetic legs.

  • CMU

    NavLab 5 was one of a series of autonomous vehicles developed at Carnegie Mellon, and had its turn in the spotlight during the "No Hands Across America" cross-country tour in 1995. NavLab, a modified GM minivan, did 98 percent of the driving itself while the human driver sat idle. "This was the first time that any autonomous vehicle had traversed so much different terrain," said Hall of Fame juror Chuck Thorpe, a NavLab pioneer who is now dean of Carnegie Mellon's Qatar campus. NavLab's heirs include the autonomous vehicles that competed in the DARPA Grand Challenge and will compete in this fall's DARPA Urban Challenge. Just this week, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced that it has narrowed down the Urban Challenge field to 53 teams (PDF file).

  • LEGO

    LEGO Mindstorms kits first went on sale in 1998, and since then, legions of robot fans have geeked out by combining the LEGO bricks with motors, sensors and other structures. "This kit did more to take creative robotics to the masses than just about any other retail product," said juror Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon. The next-generation LEGO Mindstorms NXT was released last year, complete with dovetailing curriculum packages. And just this week, some of the researchers who pioneered Mindstorms released a free software tool for kids, called Scratch, which aims to make multimedia programming as easy as playing with LEGO blocks.

Now, back to Data: Every time we've considered potential nominees to the Robot Hall of Fame, someone brings up the "Star Trek" character's famous "not a robot" quote. This year, the jurors felt that Data's robot-or-not dilemma was part of his (its?) appeal.

"The great robots of science fiction, such as Gort, have a powerful hold on people's imaginations, which is why we honor them and their creators," said Don Marinelli, executive producer of Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center. "It's precisely because Data was not confined by real-world limitations that he could address philosophical questions, such as whether a machine can have rights."

In fact, in the fictional "Star Trek" universe, Data won the legal right to self-determination and the freedom to veto his own disassembly. His long, Pinocchio-style struggle to indulge in human emotion,  humor (and even sex) was a running theme in the TV show and movies. Today, the issues that troubled the fictional Data still trouble real-life philosophers - in the form of the "zombie problem" and the debate over the roots of true consciousness.

Marinelli told me the Hall of Fame jurors didn't agonize too much over the "android vs. robot" distinction. "There is currently no Android Hall of Fame, so he's either going to get recognized in the Robot Hall of Fame or he's going to have to wait," he joked.

Speaking seriously, Marinelli felt Data richly deserved the honor because he "spurred on the philosophical dynamic of artificial life making us reflect upon what life is in general." And we're not just talking about science fiction. Marinelli pointed out that the effort to have an Austrian chimpanzee declared a person covers much of the same philosophical ground.

"That's a pretty damn good discussion to have. ... And if anything, Data led the way," Marinelli told me.

Even Brent Spiner, the actor who played Data, weighed in on the subject during a "Star Trek" chat:

[Question:] "What is your opinion on artificial consciousness? Is Data a robot, or is every human some kind of robot? Is consciousness something special ... or are we all robots with consciousness?"

Brent: "Uh, let me give that a sort of blanket yes."

Here's your chance to give a blanket yes or no to this year's additions to the Robot Hall of Fame. In the comments section, weigh in on the robot-or-not question - and feel free to discuss which contraptions should or shouldn't be on the list.

We've traditionally held a "People's Choice" contest to vote on the most deserving robot that hasn't yet entered the Hall of Fame - so be sure to add your nominations and your votes in the comments section below. To refresh your memory, the honorees already include the Mars Pathfinder robot, R2-D2 and C-3PO, HAL 9000, Unimate, Asimo, Shakey, Astro Boy, Robby the Robot, Gort, Aibo, SCARA, David (from "A.I.") and Maria (from "Metropolis").

I'll tally up the votes and ordain a "People's Choice" winner later this week.