On a recent trip to McGill University in Montreal, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Paul Oh of Drexel University in Philadelphia and the Director of the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) robotics programs. During a fascinating presentation on the US robotics research landscape, Dr. Oh made a few comments that really made me think … and reflect.
Robotics has always been a “sweet spot” for Maplesoft technology. Between the necessary complex mechanisms, and the sophisticated control strategies required, the math gets pretty intense. Maple, and now MapleSim, are effective tools to manage the complexity.
Legendary robots like the various space arms on the International Space Center and the shuttle are based on models built by Maple. Another impressive and futuristic application has been of humanoid robotics – i.e. robots that look and move like people. Data, Robby the Robot, and C-3PIO are humanoids of pop culture legend. With some ambitious mathematics and a good piece of software like Maple, you can get pretty impressive results even today. This was proven to me during a visit a few years back to Dr. Atsuo Takanishi’s Humanoid Robotics Laboratory at Waseda University in Tokyo. Dr. Takanishi’s WABIAN robot is a cousin of the more famous ASIMO from Honda. WABIAN, like his cousin has amazing human-like gait and movement.
None of this is new of course. And Dr. Oh’s comments really weren’t about how to design and build amazing humanoids. They were more on why we build humanoids. When you talk to the main researchers in the humanoid labs (especially in places like Japan), they often site the changing demographics as a main driver – the increasing proportion of elderly in their society and the potential shortage of caretakers. OK … a bit far fetched for my very pragmatic worldview but perhaps the resulting spinoff technology may indeed make life a bit easier for some. And I don’t give it a second thought.
Dr. Oh cited a fundamentally different rationale. He claimed that the drive towards a perfect humanoid is the new space race for several key countries: Japan, Korea, and China. The space race of the 60’s and 70’s was a catalyst for remarkable advancements in science and technology in the West and the communist East. And, more importantly, it captured the imaginations of the young who followed the dreams and romance of space and became arguably the most significant scientific generation in history.
Likewise, according to Dr. Oh, the governments and societies of Japan, Korea, and China view humanoids as an opportunity to energize a new generation and once again catalyze the next wave of scientific imagination and innovation. And it’s working. Asian countries continue to attract highly motivated youth into their science programs while countries like ours witness declining enrollment in these programs. The growing numbers of highly motivated scientists will be the true spinoff benefit and these people will consequently empower the respective competitive positions. According to Dr. Oh, the US robotics research scene is currently driven by the needs of autonomous devices for military and critical civil service applications – incredibly important stuff but for many, I suspect, highly abstract, if not a bit gloomy.
Yours Truly, visiting the Waseda University Humanoid Robotics Laboratory. WABIAN is the handsome one in the middle.
Being in business, I am surrounded by the practical and the sensible. I was pleased that Dr. Oh’s comments took me back to what got me charged up about science and engineering – space and robots. It can and it does work – young people can get excited about science and engineering and the Asian Humanoid Robotics Race is a great example. Will it actually help the elderly lead safer and more dignified lives? Who knows? And to be honest, I hope I never find out. Like so many other things, it’s the journey that offers the real rewards and not the destination.