Movie review: 'Robots' like you have never seen them before
September 4, 2015 12:00 AM
Carnegie Mellon University's robot HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, makes an appearance in the film "Robots" opening today at Carnegie Science Center.
By Adrian McCoy / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Humanoid robots have been trained to do many things we humans take for granted — walking and running, seeing and mapping their environment, catching balls and even dancing.
The film “Robots,” which opens today at Carnegie Science Center’s Rangos Omnimax Theater, introduces audiences to some of the coolest humanoids on the planet. Presented by National Geographic Studios and directed by documentary filmmaker Mike Slee, “Robots” focuses on cutting-edge developments in the field.
“Robots” explores four main areas — manipulation/mobility, visual perception, artificial intelligence and human-robot interaction — and explains the complex process of machine learning with great clarity.
Audiences are guided through this brave new world by the robot host RoboThespian (voiced by actor Simon Pegg). They meet 12 robots developed in the U.S., Japan and Europe. Two of them hail from Pittsburgh. HERB and CHIMP were designed and built at Carnegie Mellon University.
HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, was designed at CMU’s Robotics Institute’s Personal Robotics Lab, where research is focused on developing robots that will be able to work in homes, helping with basic tasks. HERB starred with a human actor in a two-character play produced at CMU in 2014.
CHIMP, or the CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, was designed and built by the National Robotics Engineering Center, which is part of the Robotics Institute. It was developed to work at disaster sites that are too dangerous for humans. CHIMP placed third in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge in 2013 by performing tasks like clearing debris, opening doors, closing a valve and using a power tool to to cut a hole in a wall. A “Robots” segment was filmed at the DARPA competition at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Other robots featured in the film include HRP-2, which was designed to study locomotion and is able to crawl and walk; ASIMO, a Honda-designed humanoid with lifelike movements that can jump and run at speeds up to five miles an hour; NASA’s Robonaut, which was designed to help astronauts on the International Space Station; Justin, a robot capable of catching balls with 90 percent accuracy; and the incredibly cute iCUB, a childlike android with big eyes and a round face that is designed to learn the way a child learns.
Siddhartha Srinivasa, professor at CMU’s Robotics Institute and founder of the Personal Robotics Lab, led the team that built HERB and was one of the lead researchers on the CHIMP project. He also worked on several other robots featured in the film, including the NASA Robonaut and ASIMO.
The “Robots” crew spent a day filming at his lab.
“They kept asking us to get HERB to make the same motion again,” he said. “We had a hard time telling them that HERB has a mind of his own. He actually does whatever he thinks is right. That is one of the hallmarks of an autonomous agent. It does whatever is correct for the situation. It will make its own choices. We had no mechanism in place to make him replay a motion, because it’s not our goal. Our goal is to make HERB be autonomous, and to have his own thoughts and motions.”
He thought the film did a good job in presenting the key issues in the field of humanoid robotics research.
“It’s very challenging to present robotics to a very broad audience. One of the challenges is that humans are the world’s best manipulators. Humans are the world’s best humanoids in some ways. So we set a very high bar, and we expect everything else to be good at it. We forget how hard it is to learn how to do these tasks. We forget that evolutionary process is something that robots have to go through as well.”
HERB will be paying a visit to the Science Center so that people can interact with him. The robot will be at the 21+ Robots Night on Sept. 18 from 6 to 10 p.m. and at the Robots Celebration featuring robotics experts and activities on Sept. 19 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We want to use this as a springboard for getting more kids, especially Pittsburgh kids, excited about robotics,” Mr. Srinivasa said.
“It’s exciting to be at the very frontier of this, because every day is a surprise. Every day a robot learns to do something we never thought it could do 10 years ago.”
Adrian McCoy: email@example.com or 412-263-1865.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.