By David Jay Brown
Hans Moravec is one of the world’s leading experts in robotics. He is a Research Professor in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, where he founded the Mobile Robot Laboratory, and directs the world’s largest robotics research program.
Dr. Moravec is the author of two of the most popular books on the subject of robots, and the implications of evolving robot intelligence, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Harvard University Press, 1988) andRobot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (Oxford University Press, 1998), which renown science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke described as “the most awesome work of controlled imagination I have ever encountered.” Dr. Moravec has also published many papers and articles about robotics, computer graphics, multiprocessors, space travel and other speculative areas.
Dr. Moravec has been interested in robots and “thinking machines” since he was a child in the 1950s. He built his first robot out of tin cans, batteries, lights and a motor, at the age of ten. In high school he won two science fair prizes for a light-following electronic turtle and a tape-controlled robot hand. In college he designed a computer to control more sophisticated robots. For his master’s degree Moravec built a small robot with whiskers and photoelectric eyes controlled by a minicomputer. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1980 for a TV-equipped robot, remote controlled by a large computer, that negotiated cluttered obstacle courses, taking about five hours.
Since 1980 Dr. Moravec’s Mobile Robot Lab at Carnegie Mellon University has discovered more effective approaches for robot spatial representation–notably 3D occupancy grids, that, with newly available computer power, promise commercial free-ranging mobile robots within a decade. In 2003 he co-founded SEEGRID Corporation to undertake this commercialization. To find out more about Dr. Moravec’s work visit his Web site:www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/
Dr. Moravec predicts that by the middle of the 21st century extremely powerful robots will be built with superhuman intelligence. He envisions robot physicians in the future that will be able to repair virtually any type of damage to the human body. These “fractal branching, ultra-dexterous bush robots” would be composed of “a branched hierarchy of articulated limbs, starting from a macroscopically large trunk through successively smaller and more numerous branches, ultimately to microscopic twigs and nanoscale fingers.” Dr. Moravec suggests that “even the most complicated procedures could be completed by a trillion-fingered robot, able, if necessary, to simultaneously work on almost every cell of a human body.” He also imagines that one day we may be able to transplant our brains into powerful robot bodies, or transfer the contents of our minds into extremely sophisticated computers.
I spoke with Hans on March 13, 1999, and again on April 12, 2004. Hans possesses that rare whole-brain synergy that comes when technical expertise is coupled with an expansive imagination. He seems to genuinely love speculating about consciousness and robotics, and he laughs a lot. I spoke with Hans about the current state of robotics, artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness, the possibility of multiple universes, and how robots might evolve in the next century.
David: How did you get interested in robotics?
Hans: That’s life long. When I was four years old my father helped me build a dancing man. I had this mechanical construction kit, made of hard wood, pegs and pulley wheels. And there was a device that especially caught my attention. You turned the crank, and a central wheel inside of a box turned another wheel at right angles. That moved up and down, and turned round and round.