If you plan to visit the offices of robotics research scientists Kaijen Hsiao and Matei Ciocarlie in Menlo Park, a word to the wise: The nine PR2 robots they're working with to help improve the lives of the severely disabled are prone to roam the hallways of Willow Garage, the cutting-edge robotics incubator founded in 2006. And if you crash into one and break it, the PR2s sell for a list price of $400,000 each.
Their project is called the Robots for Humanity. And, says Romania-born Ciocarlie, "with PR2, we hope to use mobile manipulation to help people with disabilities regain a sense of independence. Our goal is to see if we can get robots to escape factories and work in less-structured, more personal environments, like inside people's homes."
In collaboration with roboticists at Georgia Tech and Oregon State University, and working with a Silicon Valley quadriplegic named Henry Evans as their "test pilot," Hsiao and Ciocarlie can already claim some crowning achievements in the less than two years since the initiative launched. Even though Evans, who is also mute, has control only over one thumb, he has used an eye-movement tracking system on his glasses to control PR2 in his home and have it grab a yogurt from the refrigerator.
We visited Hsiao and Ciocarlie recently at their offices. Here are their comments, edited for clarity and space:
Q What were your earliest impressions of robots as a child?
A (Ciocarlie) I grew up in Bucharest, where I got into computers before I ever got into robots. But my idea of them was probably shaped by the pop-culture view most of us had back then. They seemed almost like thinking beings, robots like Lt. Cmdr. Data in "Star Trek" and C-3PO in "Star Wars." They're related to computer science, but robots provide you a way to write software and see tangible results in the real world. You make robots do something, giving them capabilities you can actually see, and that's so rewarding. I realized that this is what I'd like to apply my computer skills to.
Q How about you, Kaijen?
A I wanted to first make robotic pets when I was in college. I always wanted a dog but could never have one. But I saw what other roboticists were coming up with and thought it would be great to make sophisticated robotic pets so people who couldn't have a real dog could at least have a robotic one. I later realized, though, that real pets are much better as human companions than robotic pets are -- or at least for a few more years.
Q How did Robots for Humanity come about?
A (Ciocarlie) It was actually Henry who coined the term. He's a mute quadriplegic as a result of a brain stem stroke. And when he saw PR2 on TV, he immediately imagined using it as a surrogate for his body and for others in his situation. He had this notion of robots working in very close collaboration with people, which is close to Willow Garage's vision of personal robots, as opposed to an industrial robot working on an assembly line.
Q Talk a bit about PR2's relationship with Henry.
A (Hsiao) Henry's so appreciative when he's using our software because without the robot he can't do much on his own. And he once said that while he can have a human caregiver do things for him, caregivers can't do things exactly the way you imagine them being done. So being able to control the robot and have it do a task the same way every time gives Henry a sense of control. I think that's the robot's greatest value. One of the coolest things he's done so far was to have PR2 open a kitchen drawer, fetch a towel, then wipe his face with it.
Q Where will we be a year from today?
A (Ciocarlie) At this point, we're able to do what we call "proof of concept" tasks for Henry in his house, and they're complex tasks involving manipulation of objects, interaction with the environment and with his own body. That's a major step forward. In the next year or two, we hope to add more and more tasks he can have the robot do and get to a level where it does them repeatedly and consistently.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689.
Birthplace: Bucharest, Romania
Position: Research scientist and group manager, Willow Garage
Previous jobs: graduate research assistant at Columbia University's Computer Science Department, where he was a member of the robotics lab. His doctoral thesis, focusing on robotic grasping, was the winner of the 2010 Robotdalen Scientific Award. Matei was also an intern with IBM's T.J. Watson Research Lab, where he worked on visualization of large data sets.
Education: Bachelor's degree in computer engineering, Polytechnic University of Bucharest; master's and doctorate, Columbia University, New York.
Residence: Menlo Park
5 Facts about Matei Ciocarlie
1. Loves reading, both fiction and nonfiction. Favorite science-fiction books are "Dune" by Frank Herbert and "Lord of Light" by Roger Zelazny.
2. First robot he ever programmed was called the Khepera, had two wheels and an infrared sensor, and was only 2 inches in diameter.
3. Enjoys playing and/or watching most kinds of sports. Plays soccer, tennis, basketball and golf, and is a big fan of the Green Bay Packers.
4. His explanation for why programming is hard: "The problem with computers is that they do what we tell them to, not what we want them to."
5. Spent six years in New York City during grad school and has great memories from the Big Apple, and misses watching the Mets.
Birth date: Nov. 6, 1980
Birthplace: Santa Barbara
Position: Research scientist and area manager, Willow Garage
Previous jobs: Intern at Willow Garage, as well as at Iguana Robotics and iRobot; also spent one summer working at a computer help desk
Education: Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Princeton, master's and doctorate, MIT
Residence: Mountain View
5 FACTS ABOUT KAIJEN HSIAO
1. She loves being a roboticist and thinks more girls should become roboticists because robots are cool.
2. She has two house rabbits, named Boomer and Killian.
3. She has hugged and/or petted a panda, koala, kangaroo, wallaby, tiger, cheetah, giraffe, orangutan, binturong and flying fox.
4. She likes to read sci-fi and fantasy, play video games and make jewelry.
5. She can make her tongue look like a clam. (Her tip: If you are able to both curl your tongue and fold it, try doing both at once.)