An MIT Alumni Association Publication
Photo: Sam Brown,

People think all of sorts of crazy things about other people's jobs. For example, there's the stereotype that  photo editors are all failed photographers, physicists are all failed mathematicians, and writers are all demigods perched on thrones of gold (that last one is so true). What about the robotics industry? Slice decided to ask alumni in the field what they think about the biggest stereotypes about robotics. Here's what they said:

The biggest stereotype about robotics is...that they're some kind of futuristic thing, like we're not swimming in robots right now, like there's not enough computing power in a fuzzy logic rice cooker to dwarf some of the room-sized computers of the ENIAC era.  Can a rice cooker be a robot?  Of course it can!  It decides when to stop cooking your rice, it changes in response to things in the environment.  Lots of people can't recognize robots that they're using.  I think that's the biggest stereotype.

Second biggest is that any complicated robot will eventually go crazy and kill all humans.  :-)

Juanita Albro '92, grad student at UCI Robotics Lab

The biggest stereotype about robotics is that robots will run amok killing humans.  This stereotype originated with the first appearance of the word “Robot” in Karel Capek’s play RUR, published in 1920, and continued over the decades, in myriad robot stories and films, right up to the “Terminator” series and beyond.

As with most stereotypes, there is a nub of truth.  It is reasonable to be wary of autonomous intelligent robots (or the future prospect of autonomous intelligent robots).  Technology does fail, from time to time, or is misused.  But people are also flawed and have, over the millennia, killed hundreds of millions of fellow humans in genocidal and tribal atrocities.

Autonomous intelligent robots, including military robots, can be designed with value-driven logic to provide them with a code of ethics and morality.  Their behavior can be more rational, more exemplary, and more humane than that of humans.

Robert Finkelstein PhD '88, president of Robotic Technology Inc.

There are two stereotypes that strike me in Robotics…. One is Data from Star Trek TNG, the Holy Grail of Robotics and the other is the PackBot from iRobot, the extension of the human in the loop to deal with high risk packages; high risk packages being objects that put the human in the safe loop in the first place.  Of course Rumba is the first thing one may think about as Robots from iRobot but the technology of the Rumba, while autonomous in behavior, is more closer to the actions of a cockroach.  Data is the ultimate in autonomous robotics and inspires many of a roboticist.  The reality of today is that roboticists are happy to be at the learning curve of the autonomy of a newborn when it comes to robotics.  We are learning more and more of the inner workings of human perception and cerebral decision making but in reality, we have not passed beyond the characteristics of an advanced cockroach or an application with a defined order of rule sets to follow.  In the next 10 years, we will gain tremendous information from the confluence of NeuroSciences, Human Cognition, Autonomous Robotic Behavior, Machine Vision and Information Management.  Perhaps then, the elements that fill in the roadmap to Data will emerge and the evolution of robotics will take a great leap forward.  I’m excited to participate in the next decades of robotic evolution.

Peter Cunningham '77, SM '86, principal and founder of Perception Robotics

that it is for geeks and irrelevant to today's global concerns.  Robotics, particularly in the ocean are pulling back the veil of uncertainty and shedding light on scientific phenomena relevant to daily life, including hurricane formation, climate change, oil exploration and ocean acidification.  Robots that can survive 7 meter (20+ foot) seas are changing our understanding of this ocean planet.  From Cape Cod to Cape Town (South Africa) marine robots are making a difference.

Justin Manley XIII '96, director of Liquid Robotics

Many perceive robotics to be the study and/or creation of biologically-inspired devices.  While biological systems certainly inspire (and often interface with) many robotic systems, robotics in general simply seeks to design and create systems with some degree of autonomy.  By this definition, an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle navigation system is as much a "robot" as a robotic hand, robotic dog, or robotic humanoid.

Sterling Anderson SM '09, PhD candidate at MIT Robotic Mobility Group

The biggest stereotype about industrial robotics is that they should resemble what they see in the movies, like 3CPO.  Robots used in industry are actually special purpose machines that are designed for specific applications.  They can use force control and 2D or 3D vision and can adapt to changes in their environments.  While robots fall short of the ability of humans in many ways, they can be designed to be faster, stronger, and cleaner than operators as the examples below indicate.

Spider robots, like the FANUC M-1iA shown, are small robots designed with a pick speed of 200 picks/min.

Heavy payload robots, like the FANUC M-2000iA, can pick 1 ½ tons with complete articulation.

Food option robots, like the M-430iA shown, are fast and can be washed down with caustic solutions for cleaning.

People should keep an open mind about the potential use of robots and not be bound by having a humanoid form.

Dick Johnson SM '80, general manager of FANUC Robotics America

Thank you to all alumni who contributed!


What is Roboti…

Tue, 04/20/2010 2:05am

Robotics technology is developing at a rapid pace, opening up new possibilities for automating tasks and enriching the lives of humans. From the automobile assembly line to automatic home vacuum cleaners, Robotics is a part of our world. When it comes to robots, reality still lags science fiction. But, just because robots have not lived up to their promise in past decades does not mean that they will not arrive sooner or later. Indeed, the confluence of several advanced technologies is bringing the age of robotics ever nearer - smaller, cheaper, more practical and cost-effective Robotics.

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