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Man or Machine

MIT’s humanoid robots showcase both human creativity and contemporary pessimism.

Humanoid robots were once the stuff of political and science fiction. Today, scientistsworking in Japan and the USA have been turning fiction into a physical reality.

A. During July 2003,  the  Museum  of  Science  in  Cambridge,  Massachusetts  exhibited  what Honda  calls  ‘the  world’s  most  advanced  humanoid  robot’,  ASIMO  (the  Advanced  Step  in Innovative  Mobility).  Honda’s  brainchild  is  on  tour  in  North  America  and  delighting audiences wherever it goes. After 17 years in the making, ASIMO stands at four feet tall, weighs around 115 pounds and bob like a child in an astronaut’s suit. Though it is difficult to see ASIMO’s face at a distance, on closer inspection it has a smile and two large ‘eyes’ that conceal cameras. The robot cannot work autonomously  its actions are ‘remote controlled’ by scientists through the computer in its backpack. Yet watching ASMIO perform at a show in Massachusetts it seemed uncannily human. The audience cheered as ASIMO walked forwards and backwards, side to side and up and downstairs. It can even dance to the Hawaiian Hula.

B. While the Japanese have made huge strides in solving some of the engineering problems of human kinetics and bipedal movements, for the past 10 years scientists at MIT’s former Artificial Intelligence (Al)  lab  (recently  renamed  the  Computer  Science  and  Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, CSAIL) have been making robots that can behave like humans and interact with humans. One of MIT’s robots, Kismet, is an anthropomorphic head and has two  eyes  (complete  with  eyelids),  ears,  a  mouth,  and  eyebrows.  It  has  several  facial expressions, including happy, sad, frightened and disgusted. Human interlocutors are able to read some of the robot’s facial expressions, and often change their behaviour towards the machine as a result – for example, playing with it when it appears ‘sad’. Kismet is now in MIT’s museum, but the ideas developed here continue to be explored in new robots.

C .Cog (short for Cognition) is another pioneering project from MIT’s former Al lab. Cog has a head, eyes,  two  arms,  hands  and  a  torso  and  its  proportions  were  originally measured from the body of a researcher in the lab. The work on Cog has been used to test  theories  of  embodiment  and  developmental  robotics,  particularly  getting  a  robot to  develop  intelligence  by  responding  to  its  environment  via  sensors,  and  to  learn through these types of interactions. This approach to Al was thought up and developed by  a  team  of  students  and  researchers  led  by  the  head  of  MIT’s  former  Al  lab,  Rodney Brooks (now head of CSAIL), and represented a completely new development.

D.This work at MIT is getting furthest down the road to creating human-like and interactive robots. Some scientists argue that ASIMO is a great engineering feat but not an intelligent machine because it  is  unable  to  interact  autonomously  with  unpredictabilities  in  its environment in meaningful ways, and learn from experience. Robots like Cog and Kismet and new robots at MIT’s CSAIL and media lab, however, are beginning to do this.

E.These are exciting developments. Creating a machine that can walk, make gestures and learn from its  environment  is  an  amazing  achievement.  And  watch  this  space:  these achievements  are  likely  rapidly  to  be  improved  upon.  Humanoid  robots  could  have  a plethora  of  uses  in  society,  helping  to  free  people  from  everyday  tasks.  In  Japan,  for example,  there  is  an  aim  to  create  robots  that  can  do  the  tasks  similar  to  an  average human, and also act in more sophisticated situations as firefighters, astronauts or medical assistants  to  the  elderly  in  the  workplace  and  in  homes  partly  in  order  to counterbalance the effects of an ageing population.

F. So in addition  to  these  potentially  creative  plans  there  lies  a  certain  The  idea  that  companions  can  be  replaced  with  machines,  for  example,  suggests  a mechanical  and  degraded  notion  of  human  relationships.  On  one  hand,  these developments  express  human  creativity  our  ability  to  invent,  experiment,  and  to extend our control over the world. On the other hand, the aim to create a robot like a human  being  is  spurred  on  by  dehumanised  ideas  by  the  sense  that  human companionship can be substituted by machines; that humans lose their humanity when they  interact  with  technology;  or  that  we  are  little  more  than  surface  and  ritual behaviours, that can be simulated with metal and electrical circuits.

G. The tension between  the  dehumanised  and  creative  aspects  of  robots  has  long  been explored  in    In  Karel  Capek’s  Rossum’s  Universal  Robots,  a  1921  play  in  which  the term  ‘robot’  was  first  coined,  although  Capek’s  robots  had  human-like  appearance  and behaviour,  the  dramatist  never  thought  these  robots  were  human.  For  Capek,  being human  was  about  much  more  than  appearing  to  be  human.  In  part,  it  was  about challenging a dehumanising  system, and struggling to become recognised and given the dignity of more than a machine. A similar spirit would guide us well through twenty-first century experiments in robotics.

Questions 1-7

Reading  Passage  1  has  seven  paragraphs,  A-G.  Which  paragraph  contains  the  following

information? Write the correct letter, A-G, in boxes 1-7 on your answer sheet.



1. The different uses of robots in society
2. How robot is used in the artistic work
3. A robot that was modelled on an adult
4. A comparison between two different types of robots
5. A criticism of the negative effects of humanoid robots on the society
6. A reference to the first use of the word “robot”
7. People feel humanity may be replaced by robots




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