Carl Spirito studies creepy-crawly things like cockroaches, crabs, spiders and crayfish - a fact that made him popular at theUniversity of Genoa robotics lab during his six-month sabbatical there. The Italian engineers, who were building a six-legged robot, peppered Spirito with questions about how bugs move and how they sense the world. They knew Spirito's critters could help them build a better machine.
Lowly forms of life have become a hot topic in robotics. Many engineers now see bugs and beasts as easier to copy than humans, and as potentially superior models of behavior. Biological scientists, meanwhile, are starting to pay attention to robots as powerful models for studying insect and animal life.
``Certainly, the boundaries are getting very blurred'' between robotics and the natural sciences, said Spirito, an associate professor of physiology at the University of New England in Biddeford. ``There's this group of us who want to use robots to understand animals, and there are those who want to use animals to understand robotics,'' he said.
This academic partnership - broadly called ``biologically-inspired robotics'' - has implications for everyone. Proponents say it may soon lead to new consumer, industrial and military robots - things like robot vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, cooks, dusting machines and soldiers. And it is helping science better understand living creatures.
Biologically-inspired robotics also is raising ethical and philosophical issues. Some observers say it is blurring the definition of life itself - as robots are taught to feed themselves, fight for survival, learn from their environment and, in some cases, reproduce and evolve. ``Really, we're on the cusp of the next technological revolution,'' said Scott Jantz, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida Machine Intelligence Laboratory. The lab has built 30 insect-inspired robots and a prototype robot lawn mower. ``It'll make the (personal computer) revolution look like small potatoes,'' Jantz said. ``You only have one PC in your home, but you could easily have four or five robots in your home, involved in your daily life.'' The collaboration between engineers and natural scientists is a relatively new development.
Randall Beer, an associate professor of biology and computer science at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, compares it to peeking at an answer in the back of the textbook. Nature has already solved many of the problems robots confront. ``It's silly to ignore these real-world examples,'' Beer said. ``Many of the things we'd like to do with robots are done by animals as well as by humans.'' Engineers now regularly look at how people and animals walk, shifting weight from limb to limb and altering their gait with the terrain. They create artificial spinal cords, muscles, nervous systems and bodies for robots based on animal models. They even write computer programs to mimic the decision-making process of animals and people. Biological modeling is particularly important as robotics tries to overcome its biggest hurdle: developing machines that work outside the laboratory. ``Animals really have the same problem as robots,'' Beer said. ``They don't have people walking around after them, picking things up and helping them out of jams.''
Still, until very recently, robotics mostly focused on humans for whatever biological inspiration it gleaned from the natural world. When engineers and America's popular culture envisioned robots, they thought of humanoid devices in the style of C3-PO from ``Star Wars'' or Will Robinson's friend on ``Lost in Space.'' ``They thought that if they could come up with a machine with reasoning ability, everything else would be trivial,'' Spirito said. But experience demonstrated that not only were human brains difficult to copy, but the physical skills of people are hard to duplicate as well.
Setting sights lower: So in recent years, many robotics engineers have started to set their sights lower - all the way down to the world of insects and other invertebrates. Now robots frequently look more like the spider in ``Charlotte's Web'' than the android on ``Star Trek.'' For example, Beer is part of a team that is building a robot cockroach - 17 times as large as the real insect - that ``has got enough strength to run and whatnot.'' ``That's the level of computer intelligence we have available to us now,'' Jantz said of insects and other creatures at the bottom of the food chain. Bug-bots may not be smart, but they can be superior in some physical respects to humans. They get around with more stability, for example, on eight legs than people do on two. And their mechanical bodies can be more durable, powerful and responsive than flesh.
Richard Peck of Newport is building a six-legged robot as his senior project at the University of Maine. He chose that model because of its relative simplicity and functionality. ``You have got a lot more stability if you have four legs on the ground at any time,'' Peck said. Researchers in Massachusetts are using lobsters' superior ability to detect odors as a model for their robot, which will identify or track down chemical spills. They call it Robo-Lobster. A Yale professor is using the sound waves produced by bats and dolphins as a model for creating robots that can ``see'' in three dimensions, rather than just the two dimensions available to humans. Researchers in several locations are showing how even high-level activities can be performed by robot bugs taught to interact with each other in a kind of artificial-insect society. ``What evolves out of that society (of insects interacting together) is a very high level of function,'' Jantz said. ``Ants can farm. They can do all kinds of things that we associate with humans.'' This insect model is a more realistic picture of how robots might really be used in our lives than the science fiction ideal of helpful, humanoid machines.
Doing jobs people shun: ``You don't want to put doctors or lawyers out of business,'' Jantz said. ``You need robots for the jobs that people don't want to do. Those are the robots that will be really valuable.'' You want robots to take out the trash, defuse bombs, handle toxic waste and demolish nuclear power plants. Some insects have shown that they can thrive in environments like these without complaint. ``Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the artificial intelligence field had these lofty goals of creating human-type intelligence,'' Jantz said. ``That goal was more academic than practical because you don't want robots thinking for themselves. ``You don't want them thinking `Do I really want to go to the bottom of a volcano?' '' he said. Also, insect-inspired robots would be a lot cheaper to produce than people-like machines, and thus more useful in the real world. ``You turn loose 500 of these autonomous cockroaches, and if two or three of them stop working in the first couple of days or hit a wall or whatever, it's no big deal,'' Spirito said. ``People aren't thinking about the perfect robot anymore.''
Indeed, researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville are designing robot insects that will crawl and fly for the military. Soldiers on battlefields and pilots in the sky would release ``swarms'' of these robo-insects - each about a third the size of a credit card - to spy on the enemy and detect the presence of chemical or biological weapons. And this kind of mechanical creature is just the beginning of what biologically inspired robots could accomplish. Scientists can take lessons from bug-bots and move up the line to more complicated animals such as reptiles, mammals and people. In fact, the robots can help. They now often ``evolve'' in the same way that biological creatures do in the natural world, Jantz said. It's called ``emergent functionality'' among robotics engineers. For example, Jantz programmed several robots to recharge themselves from a specific electrical outlet and set them down in the same room.
Survival of the fittest: ``Without even programming it in, the robots would fight for this resource and kill each other off,'' Jantz said. ``The strongest one survives.'' This kind of so-called ``artificial evolution'' will help scientists develop higher level robots - maybe even approaching the human level - by learning from the experiences of these lower-level forms of ``artificial life,'' Jantz said. However, there will always be a role for robotic insects and animals in the future, he said. ``The view of Rosie in `The Jetsons' won't happen, not for technological issues but because of civil rights issues,'' Jantz said. ``You can't enslave a higher-intelligence being in your home.''
Staff photo by John Ewing
PHOTO Caption: Carl Spirito, an associate professor of physiology at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, is interested in how robots can be built to simulate bugs' motions.