DARPA's Humanoid Robbie Never Takes His Eyes Off You

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In preparation for National Robotics Week, an initiative of the Congressional Robotics Caucus, at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), which kicks off on Saturday, April 9, the Smithsonian Institution is in the process of bulking up its collection of automatons.

During Robotics Week, the museum will host live demonstrations of robots in action -- playing music, locating objects, etc. -- and present displays of robotics through history. The broad definition of robots that the museum has settled on means that its collection, which currently numbers fewer than 100 objects, includes figures from science fiction, like C-3PO from the original Star Wars trilogy; industrial robots such as the robotic arms that are used in factory construction; and even 14th century Renaissance automatic clockwork.

DARPA's Dr. Gill Pratt introduces Robbie:

On Tuesday morning, that collection grew a little larger and more diverse. Spark!Lab, a Lemelson Center project that seeks to educate and inspire curiosity in young people, hosted a program in which representatives from Velodyne and Sandia National Laboratories signed over pieces from their impressive robotics collections to the Smithsonian archive. Sandia is known for its miniature robots, such as MARV, which was named the 2001 robotics invention of the year by Time magazine. Velodyne makes robots that are significantly larger than those produced by Sandia. After making a name for themselves in high-end audio equipment, Sandia's executive team -- two brothers working together for decades -- participated in television game shows for which they built robot warriors whose sole mission was to crush other robots. Now, the brothers are developing innovative laser vision systems that steer cars.

The new additions to the Smithsonian's collection are relatively young robots, both invented within the past decade, but that's surprising only to those unfamiliar with the museum's past. "The Smithsonian has a long history of collecting and displaying experimental prototypes that hold great promise," said Carlene Stephens, robotics curator at the NMAH.

After Stephens oversaw the signing of the papers -- this is a government-supported institution after all -- Dr. Gill Pratt from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) introduced Robbie. Most robots are teleoperated, a standard term in the industry that is similar to remote control. Robbie is not. Robbie takes over a (very) small part of the most basic functions of our brain, Pratt explained. Instead of, say, wearing a sleeve covered with sensors and having the robot mimic its operators' movements, Robbie requires minimal human assistance. You can, for example, tell Robbie to press the red button on an electronic game of Simon. He'll look around with his human-like head (which can be quite unnerving) until he finds the red button and then move his own arm to press the button.

For the next two months Robbie will sit in Spark!Lab and play games with visitors -- mostly children -- but the work he does outside of the museum is more advanced. "Robbie is designed as a tool for researchers at leading U.S. universities and research labs to find ways to enhance the types of tasks robots can perform while minimizing the amount of human input necessary," according to the Smithsonian's press release for the event. The demonstration below shows that Robbie is making considerable advances.

Watch Robbie track an orange ball:

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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