Luc Steels:

This Belgian professor was interested in language, the way we communicate. Little did he have to imagine that this would end up leading him to work not only with humans but also with robots. And it is that his research, focused on the origins of language, was finding a growing accommodation in the universe of artificial intelligence. His work, equipping those without brains, has allowed him to participate in a dream that seemed old-fashioned: to create robots with human or animal appearance.Luc Steels, who runs the Sony Computer Laboratory in Paris, has participated in the investigations that have allowed the Japanese company to break into the market with its robot dog Aibo, which the Japanese became their favorite toy in just one week. The metallic dog and other congeners in preparation are supported by a delicate theoretical research work in artificial intelligence that, to a large extent, is carried out in Europe and in which Steels plays a leading role.

Why has the Aibo puppy become such a rampaging phenomenon?
-I think it is a good example of the high level that has been reached in artificial intelligence, and that explains, in part, the excitement it has aroused. Still, Aibo is limited by its processor. It could have more capabilities, but it is a question of the cost of its technology. The same can happen to us in our next project: the humanoid robot.

A humanoid?
-It is a very hopeful area of research at the moment, dating back a few years and that has taken off especially in Japan. I’m working a lot on the humanoid that Sony prepares. He will be just under half a meter tall, stand upright, walk, dance, and play soccer. It is going to be awesome. My group and I are dedicating ourselves to your communication language, as we want you to be able to understand four languages.

But robotics trying to emulate humans seemed out of date.
-Well, there are many disciplines that become popular, do not meet expectations -because sometimes you cannot advance as quickly as expected- and are forgotten again. But while this is happening in industry and among the general public, the fact is that researchers continue to work. Artificial intelligence is a very complicated area because there are several pieces of the scientific puzzle that need to be integrated, and it takes time to do so.

And what are the main pieces to gather?
-There are various difficulties that range from battery technology -we need good energy sources for the robot to have sufficient autonomy -to motors, minicameras and all video technology. Much of it is mechanical and electronic engineering, but artificial intelligence (AI) is also needed. I think AI has come a long way in the last ten or twenty years, in things like vision algorithms, behavioral schemas, and the architecture of artificial brains. I don’t think my science would have done anything wrong to fall into oblivion, it was simply that it had lost public attention. But it is coming back.

Right now, most of the robots around us don’t look like them.
-It’s true. Lots of robots are not humanoid. They are highly specialized in specific functions, such as those in our car, capable of detecting various aspects of its operating state; or in a pipe, which is inspected by a robot; or those who help surgeons in their task. The general public does not tend to think of any of them as robots, but as sophisticated machines; but behind that is the work of artificial intelligence.

By when will your humanoid be on the market?
-In a year and a half or two.

And what will it do?
-It has no serious purpose, it is an entertainment machine. This type of automaton is not intended to be useful, but to entertain. Robots are going to be a new means of communication for leisure, in the same way that computers are also used to play games. And you can be sure that not only children but also adults will play.

Are they the new toys?
-It is a new form of highly interactive entertainment. I can imagine that robots will be given multiple personalities based on their owners. Robots useful for homes will also arrive but, without a doubt, that will be later. Now is not the priority. On the other hand, these types of small robots are less complicated, they need fewer batteries.

Why are you participating in this project?
-I have been working in AI for twenty years and this is a good opportunity to work on a robot that will be released. It is a natural continuation of my work. A positive effect of its commercialization is that the more it is sold, the more the cost of its processors will be cheaper and we will be able to increase its power. But what interests me the most is language. I am more involved in the research part of their cognitive architecture, which leads me to work on the main structure of the brain of these machines.

And what is your main challenge?
-The integration of capacities, that is, achieving the relationship between vision and language, since, when we speak, we move and make gestures. This requires a tight coordination job. By the way, animals have very sophisticated communication skills. We tend to believe that man is at the top of the scale of communicative development, but I am not too sure.

In the videos of his experiments we see how robots obey the voice. Is your performance perfect?
-If I give orders to people, many times they do not understand me and they do things that I did not intend. That is to say, it is not a question of pretending a total perfection, that is another misconception regarding AI. We are not perfect, nor can robots be. You can’t build the perfect machine. In our intelligence, the important thing is that when we fall, we know how to get up.

Why is Japan the country that is leading the entire evolution of robotics alone?
-In part, because Japan is a country that is not afraid to invest in the future. Europe currently has a very short-term mentality. You want to get useful products in a very short time, and that is impossible. In addition, Japanese companies gather skills in very diverse technical areas that can then be integrated into robotics. I believe that in Europe it is urgent to return creative freedom to scientists, something that, at least in our field, has been lost.

Are there also cultural reasons for these projects to emerge in Japan?
-Yes. They are less afraid of technology. In Europe, our first reaction is to think about the threat it poses to humanity.

Jose Angel Martos


This interview was published in October 2001, in number 245 of VERY Interesting.

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