03
Sep
14

SETTING THE STAGE for a leading role

0914MEM_CoverFBRosie the robot had a mind of her own. She held a prominent role in The Jetsons, the futuristic and animated family television sitcom. She spent her days being part-time housekeeper, part-time babysitter and—more often than not—a prominent family sage. The Jetsons was set in the Space Age world of 2062, when robots serve as servants, flight is the preferred means of transportation, and people use video chatting to communicate. Imagine that.

Some said the show, which first aired in 1962, was ahead of its time. It went off the air after one season but returned to a more successful run from 1984 to 1987. Hollywood’s fascination with robots, however, predates Rosie and the Jetsons. Since the early days of B movies there has been an allure in giving mechanical objects the ability to think for themselves and act autonomously. In most of these obscure and often dark films, chaos occurs, predictably, when the machine, armed with the power to act under its own volition, wreaks havoc, turns on humans, and occasionally kills innocent women and children. In essence, it gets ugly.

Sans all the death and destruction, the fascination to give robots something akin to cognitive aptitude has not been lost on a long list of researchers throughout the years. They’ve been at work trying to promote robots from the assembly line and into useful aides that can interact with humans in positive and helpful ways. One of the many intriguing examples we have written about in the past is the work to turn robots into caregivers to help the elderly.

Because much of yesterday’s science fiction has become today’s technology, our editors have relied on the likes of technologists such as Ahmed Noor to keep us honest about the line between science fiction and reality. In his articles over the past decade or so, Noor has taken us inside technologies that are burgeoning and others so advanced you wouldn’t be surprised to see them on The Jetsons. We’ve closely monitored Noor’s work and we’ve kept a keen eye on the Center for Advanced Engineering Environments that he runs at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

“Game Changers,” the article Noor penned for us this month (plus a related article, “Robot See, Robot Do,” written by a group from the University of Maryland) leads us on a path showing that machines are approaching the age of reason. Noor tells us about some serious explorations conducted here at home in places such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly known as DARPA, and others farther away, such as the Neurorobotics Research Lab of Humboldt University in Germany, where an early generation cognitive robot called Myon is learning to respond to human emotion. Myon is so advanced, in fact, that it will play the lead in Berlin’s Komische Oper production of “My Square Lady,” a take on Frederick Loewe’s musical, My Fair Lady. (No, I’m not kidding.)

The unique production will probe the question of what makes a person a person, and whether an object such as a robot can be transformed into one.

In spirit—figuratively speaking of course—Myon is more Rosie the robot than its distant relatives who play the menacing machines of modern warfare in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Just the same, I’m glad we’ve got the likes of Ahmed Noor to tell us just how long we have until technology fully catches up with science fiction.


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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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