What is a humanoid robot?
A humanoid robot is a robot that has the appearance and size of a human. In addition to making similar movements, it can think and behave like a person. There is an important debate on whether it is a good idea to imitate humans or whether it would be better to create other automatic systems. The idea is to have an intelligent companion that looks like us and is acceptable to us.
There are androids so similar to humans that they arouse hostility. Why is that?
For example, if we see a person in the subway that is an exact replica of us, in their body, dress and behavior, this will cause fear until we realize that it is a robot. Humans are always afraid of being replaced by someone. In this regard, androids can create repulsion. This phenomenon, known as “uncanny valley,” occurs when anthropomorphic replicas behave almost like real humans and make humans afraid.
Are the humanoids presented at Humanoids 2014 frightening?
Not at all. The slogan for this conference is “Humans and robots face to face,” in reference to their chance to participate. The growing interest in this field, especially in interactions in daily activities in real environments, confirms this. The scenarios contemplated include assistance for the sick, elderly and disabled, help at the home or the office, and support in work environments such as aeronautics, construction or manufacturing. This cooperation means that it is necessary to develop very safe humanoids that are easy to communicate with and which are as intelligent as possible.
This is the first time that this conference has been held in Spain, isn’t it?
Yes. We managed to bring this conference to Spain, beating out other European cities that were proposed. The most recent editions were held in Atlanta (2013) and Osaka (2012), and holding it now in Madrid is, I believe, an achievement for the Spanish robotics community. However, it is the most important conference in the world in the field of humanoids, the most advanced robots that exist right now. Also, in this edition, the number of speakers and workshops planned has been doubled, which shows the interest that this discipline generates and the attractiveness of UC3M and the city of Madrid for this type of event.
How many speakers and workshops are planned?
Nearly two hundred. In total, at Humanoids 2014, there will be 173 science talks and 17 workshops. The full sessions will be run by some of the most important researchers in the field of humanoid robots, such as the Japanese Masayuki Inaba, from the University of Tokyo; Dr. Alin Albu-Schäffer, director of the robotics department at the DLR in Germany; and Dr. Jerry Pratt, from the IHMC in Pensacola, in the United States. In addition, there will be an exhibition space for these devices and related technologies, and novelties regarding several robots like TEO, REEM-C, iCub, NAO and Darwin will be presented.
Will there be any novelty from the UC3M Robotics Laboratory?
The UC3M Robotics Laboratory has developed several humanoids, like TEO, which we are going to present at this international conference. It is the third generation of this model, a naturally-sized humanoid robot whose purpose is to manipulate objects in a kitchen without dropping any or damaging anything. The goal is to create a functional robot in an everyday environment.
And will there be any kind of competition between robots?
The conference will have a competition of humanoid mini-robots (HUMABOT), which is the first time we are doing it. There are a lot of competitions with robots in the world, but this one is unique, because only humanoids performing routine operations in everyday life will participate. Specifically, there will be a simulated environment of a kitchen where robots will have to perform a series of operations.
If a robot harmed a person, who would take responsibility? Are there robotics laws similar to Asimov’s?
1. A robot cannot hurt a human being or, because of inaction, allow a human being to be hurt.
2. A robot must obey the orders given by human beings, except if these orders come into conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as this protection does not come into conflict with the first or second law.
Evidently, Asimov’s laws, which come from science fiction, are also valid for real science. But we need to adapt them and create some international standards, just as we certify that a car or a washing machine is safe, especially with regard to interaction with humans. These standards do not exist, because the fact is technology is not mature yet. It is expanding and constantly growing. Moreover, international legislation is not prepared for that, either.
You research how to insert robotics into our daily life, don’t you?
The RoboCity 2030 project, subsidized by Madrid’s regional government, gathers scientists from top universities and research centers in the region in this field. The goal is to study how to introduce robotics into sectors unrelated to electric appliances or car manufacturing, where they have existed for years. But the idea is not only for robots to work in domestic environments, but also in other spaces, such as in a hospital to help take care of the sick, in monitoring tasks in different infrastructures, cleaning streets, etc. We want robots to spread throughout our country and become just another household device, like a television or a microwave oven now.
What is the key to achieving this?
Robotics still has a long way to go, because it is a field that is developing and maturing, but it is obviously a technology of the future and we must be committed to it. The most important thing is for companies to arise, those called “the Nokia of robotics,” that do something similar to what this company did when it launched mobile telephones on a large scale. When the world economic crisis ends, there will probably be companies that will begin to enter this market. When that happens, I think robots will inundate our lives. Fifteen years ago, there were no “smartphones,” and now almost everyone has one. Something similar will occur with robots.