Outsized effort powers robots in 'Almost Human'

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Lee Gutkind, author of "Almost Human: Making Robots Think."
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One is the impassioned evangelist who energizes true believers to accomplish impossible deeds.

Another, the worthy missionary whose leadership and vision keeps followers focused on tasks at hand.

Yet a third combines characteristics of both.

And finally there's the flock itself that works almost round the clock, lest they disappoint their leaders. They represent the soldiers that make impossible tasks somehow possible.

But this is no church story, even if it does involve religious zeal. Instead, it's the dramatic tale of Carnegie Mellon University roboticists working to build robots that feature human-like abilities when they move, see, record, learn, and even understand.

Lee Gutkind, the self-described "godfather of creative nonfiction," tells their story in his latest book that provides an inside look into Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

"Almost Human: Making Robots Think," the 320-page book published by WW Norton, is available in bookstores and online. Its jacket describes the book as "a remarkable, intense portrait of the robotic subculture and the challenging quest for robot autonomy."

"It's a great test of character to get them to work," Mr. Gutkind said of robots that do not make good eye contact with humans. "The main thesis is that young people are making things happen."

Mr. Gutkind, author of 11 other books, including looks at transplant surgery, umpires and veterinary medicine -- along with various treatises on creative nonfiction -- uses literary techniques including painting scenes with words, using dialogue and detailing descriptions to better tell real-life stories.

The formidable challenges faced by some of the world's most notable roboticists provided him opportunity to spin a compelling account that reveals how far they've come, but how far they have yet to travel to create machines with human sensibilities and gumption.

An English professor who teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, Mr. Gutkind is now serving for six months as writer in residence at Arizona State University.

He said he spent six years, on and off, meeting and traveling with CMU roboticists to document their struggles, foibles and breakthroughs. Filmmaker Richard Noel also is creating a documentary based on the book.

Mr. Gutkind's viewpoint of the roboticist's challenge focuses largely on the frustration of getting machines to work as conceived and designed.

Another theme is how roboticists become so focused on the daily ordeals of building robots that they sometimes overlook their machine's grand accomplishments.

But the over-arching theme is how CMU undergraduates sometimes work endless hours for days at a time to write software, or "code," that drives the robotic hardware.

It also reveals the extensive expertise required to build a robot. The crew typically includes engineers, computer scientists, electricians, "gear heads and code monkeys," along with scientists of various disciplines.

The book describes the personalities of such famed roboticists as William "Red" Whittaker, the above-mentioned evangelist who preaches, encourages and even shames his crew, mostly students. His goal is to encourage them to work tirelessly on robots that end up traveling unassisted through abandoned coal mines, or autonomous cars that cross deserts without assistance.

Then there's the missionary-type, David Wettergreen, who has been involved in every major robotics project at CMU the past two decades and has led crews to build some of the world's most productive robots. Those include Zoe, the first robot to do scientific research autonomously, in this case in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Manuela Veloso mixes features of Drs. Whittaker and Wettergreen in prompting CMU teams to become juggernauts in worldwide robo-soccer competitions.

At each step, code monkeys do battle with gear heads.

And occasionally, there's glory when a robot does what it is designed to do.

Matthew T. Mason, director of the Robotics Institute, said the book provides an excellent outsider's viewpoint of the people with whom he's worked.

"It's an accurate and revealing picture of robotics research," Dr. Mason said. "I didn't expect to learn anything, but I was wrong.

"Mr. Gutkind's work includes wonderful character portraits of some of the world's greatest roboticists -- their intellect, commitment and most of their passion for robotics."

Chuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon Qatar and member of the Robotics Institute since 1979, said he also loved the book.

"It's rare to read a book like this one that captures the real feeling of an enterprise, the intense personalities, the big dreams, the mud and dirt, the hours of debugging code, and the duct tape that holds together even the most sophisticated of prototype robots," he said.

Dr. Thorpe said hard work, a mix of theories and many personalities were needed to turn the Robotics Institute into the world's leading robotics laboratory.

But that still does not guarantee things will go right with the robots.

"It's like golf," Mr. Gutkind said. "You hit the ball one time well then spend the rest of the year trying to do it again.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 15, 2007) In this Mar. 14, 2007 story about Lee Gutkind's book, "Almost Human: Making Robots Think," Matthew T. Mason, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, was identified incorrectly.

"But sometimes incredible things do happen."

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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