By Sophia A. Niarchos
Oyster Bay, N.Y. — Will Japan succeed in its quest to have a soccer team of humanoid robots beat Brazil’s soccer team? Will robots be able to show human emotion in the not-so-distant future?
One scientist whose answers to those questions are worth considering is University of South Florida Professor Kimon Valavanis.
“I will believe it when I see it,” Valavanis says of the likelihood of a robotic soccer team beating the world champions. But he is more optimistic about the possibility that robots will be capable of showing emotion.
It is possible, he noted, that as early as thirty years from now, we may have robots that have moods, that smile if they’re happy and show their sadness or fatigue. But when it comes to intelligence, he believes whatever they have will be machine intelligence.
“If we can monitor the human brain and have more information about how neurons function, obviously robots will be made ‘smarter.’ But a designer will provide the fundamental tools on which the robot will build its own knowledge base, and a machine cannot be smarter than the human being that created it.”
Prof. Valavanis has been at the cutting edge of robotics technology in the U.S. and Greece for more than two decades. He was recently featured on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings in a segment about alleviating traffic congestion; and when Greek News spoke to him, the Fox News Network was scheduled to visit his laboratory.
Valavanis’ expertise lies in a field that has revolutionized the way things get done in our world. Robotic technology has evolved from the mechanical manipulation robots were designed to do in the 80’s to the highly sophisticated “intelligent” sensor-equipped robots of today that can make decisions without human intervention.
“The mechanical manipulation robots performed in the 80’s was valued for its high reliability. Unlike humans, robots maintained a high accuracy rate when performing repetitious tasks, and this was especially helpful on assembly lines in the automobile and food processing industries,” Valavanis recalled. “When the technology improved for electronics computer chip manufacturing, robots became more sophisticated, capable of assisting in medical procedures such as laparoscopy or colonoscopy; and unmanned ground, aerial, and underwater vehicles are equipped with a sensor suite enabling them to perceive the environment and react to it.”
Unmanned robotic vehicles are especially well-suited for missions that would place human beings in dangerous settings such as minefields and nuclear waste dumping grounds, Valavanis noted. But they are now also helpful in one especially troublesome area of urban living: alleviating traffic congestion.
“We now have prototypes for aerial vehicles that can be used for surveillance and reconnaissance. In addition to monitoring traffic, they can detect whether there has been an accident and quickly get the appropriate emergency response vehicles on the scene,” he explained, adding that these vehicles are also used to assist in drug trafficking investigations in Florida’s I-10 corridor.
His laboratory supplies the prototypes to such clients as corporations and local, state and federal agencies involved in transportation, defense, energy, and law enforcement.
Valavanis believes fears that robots negatively affect the job market, that they increase rates of unemployment, are unfounded.
“Job loss will be experienced in the unskilled labor sector, but more people will be needed to build robots. We have been moving into being an information society, not a manual labor society. As a result, education [that is accessible to unskilled workers] becomes the issue.”
But the value of robots in the workplace, in Valavanis’ opinion, outweighs employment concerns.
“Robots change the work environment and the type of work that people do. Before robots, manual work was done by humans. The benefit of using robots on an assembly line is that as time goes by, robot accuracy, unlike human accuracy, improves.”
There is one area, however, in which robots may never have an edge over people.
“Robots don’t have common-sense knowledge, and we don’t know if we’ll be able to program them to have it,” Valavanis said.
Prof. Valavanis’ opinions emanate from a broad knowledge of the world of robotics. In the 80’s, his group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he had received his doctorate, was the first to design and test a new system for real-time closed-loop control of robot manipulators. Until that system was developed, a robot could be instructed to do something, but in the event of error, there was no feedback or correction capability. With the closed-loop system, on-the-spot corrections could be made, thereby improving accuracy.
In the 90’s, Valavanis’ group designed a set of general purpose controllers that could be used for ground, aerial and underwater vehicles with only minor modifications needed for each application.
Most recently, in 2000, Valavanis group’s contribution to robotics development was the creation of autonomous navigation controllers for small helicopters.
Valavanis, who came to the U.S. in 1981, returned to Greece in 1999. But his stay there was short-lived. Hindrances to scientific progress posed by bureaucratic and political obstacles led to his return to the U.S. in 2003.
He regrets that while he and his colleagues were able to make significant contributions to the advancement of robotics in the U.S., conditions in Greece, where robotic technology is used primarily in archaeological and other excavations, shipwrecks, and harbor safety, are not conducive to forging similar progress there. As a matter of fact, in the last seven years, nine of the ten professors who had collaborated with Valavanis in the U.S. and had gone to Greece to make a contribution, were frustrated by the political and bureaucratic environment there and returned to his University of South Florida laboratory.
“There is great potential, there are great scientists there,” he said. “Unfortunately, moving forward is difficult because the process is hampered by politics and bureaucracy. And modern-day technology is such that it moves too fast to allow [the luxury of] waiting.”