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Mother of Invention

Virtual cow fences and self-reconfiguring automatons are just two of MIT roboticist Daniela Rus's futuristic visions

Cow pastures: the final frontier.


The old Star Trek intro had it all wrong. In the world of the future, the one envisioned by MIT computer scientist and robot builder Daniela Rus, outer space won't be the place to ogle humanity's whiz-bang technology. You'll just plant your feet in a cow field. In Rus's future world, cows wear computerized collars hooked up to Global Positioning System technology that keeps tabs on the critters' every move. They aren't fenced in; fences, poet Robert Frost's guarantor of good neighbors, are a relic of the Middle Ages, which by Rus's calendar included the early 21st century.

In this future, a Holstein that hoofs it out of bounds runs into a "virtual fence": a collar-activated, unpleasant sound (a barking dog) that sends it loping back. Sparing the time and expense of fence building would be welcome in Vermont, where Romanian-born Rus (pronounced roos) is working with farmers to design a prototype collar, but even better news in Australia, where a former student first piqued Rus's interest in bovine traffic control. Ranches down under sprawl like villages; virtual fences could eliminate the costly shepherding of cattle by helicopter.

"Agriculture is an area that has not received enough attention from people working in high tech," says Rus. "It's what feeds us, so I think it's our duty to contribute and see if we can help that sector out."

For now, virtual fences stretch only across the fertile plain of Rus's imagination, where also resides her most dazzling vision: self-reconfiguring robots, able to alter their shape at will. Say a building or mine collapses in this distant future; a snake-shaped robot slithers through openings in the rubble. As the shapes and sizes of the holes and tunnels change, the robot rearranges its parts to navigate them, its segments climbing over one another with magnets and grippers. It reshapes itself into scaffolding, prying apart rock or concrete to hollow out an opening for rescuers.

Meanwhile, self-reconfiguring robots ride space shuttles into orbit and reassemble as communications antennae or as mechanical repairmen with arms to fix the hull, sparing astronauts hazardous spacewalks. Robotic explorers also probe distant planets, adapting themselves to ever-changing terrain.

From their beginnings, robots served to enhance human convenience and safety. Rus, who last year won a MacArthur "genius" grant at age 39, invests her work with quasi-spiritual purpose as well. Inventing machines that build scaffolding and rescue victims -- in short, that act like people -- "means to study life, to get an understanding of how we're made up," she says. "Understanding life is a great and noble quest, because that's how we understand ourselves."

"WE WOULD LIKE TO HAVE ROBOTS THAT COULD GROW A second head or a third arm." The woman guest-lecturing Northeastern University colleagues wears a brown tunic over black slacks, her raven hair pulled back in a ponytail, the gold on her shoe bridges matching that of her necklace. Playfully forecasting the hypothetical crescendo of her work, Rus screens a snippet from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It's the scene in which good Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger has just blasted the bad Terminator to pieces, only to watch the shards liquefy and ooze together with eerie intentionality, coagulate in a puddle, and rise up as the reassembled robo-killer.

That gets a snicker or two from her sober audience. They chuckle audibly when she describes virtual fences, and by the time she gets to self-reconfiguring robots, they're spraying her with questions, hooked by work that's not just cutting edge but outer limits.

"She's doing sort of way-out stuff," says Rodney A. Brooks, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (This from a man whose lab has built robots smart enough to grin, frown, and give guided tours.) Says Zack Butler, who collaborates on research with Rus at Dartmouth College, where she used to teach, "We would not expect this stuff to be [something] you could go down to Circuit City and buy in the next 20 years."

To reach that point, artificial intelligence must progress closer to human mental suppleness: I think, therefore I'm RAM. Brawn is an even bigger challenge; robot bodies must become more pliable and resilient. To date, the robots Rus has built look more like the Toys "R" Us catalog than a shape-shifting Terminator. The "Inchworm" was three small strips of perforated aluminum, hinged together so that it could undulate like its biological namesake. Equipped with magnets, it scaled metal walls and crawled upside down on metal ceilings. The idea was for a robot "that would go up the Eiffel Tower and inspect all of its joints," Rus recalls. "Instead of the Eiffel Tower, we got it climbing up the fire escapes at Dartmouth and nearly got in trouble with the Dartmouth campus security, because we didn't know you're not supposed to be on fire escapes."

Some roboticists are "absolutely aghast" when critics question their brave new world, Brooks says. Rus invited students to pause and ponder it. The mechanics of building robots are fine, she says, but arguing big philosophical issues revs students' passion, so that they just don't "passively sit back and suck all the information you give to them."

The climactic project of her artificial-intelligence classes at Dartmouth (one she hopes to continue at MIT) assigned debate teams to duel over such topics as whether robots might rule the world someday, or the urgency of enacting writer Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics," mandating that robots never harm humans. Student Carl Stritter's topic was whether artificial-intelligence research would benefit humanity. "Never before had I heard a professor," he says by e-mail, "after teaching us a subject for 10 weeks, ask the class whether or not it had been, in essence, a waste of time."

The topics were not the reflected angst of the professor. Rus considers the Terminator scenario or the one of humans morphing into a part-robot hybrid species (foreseen by, among others, Rod Brooks) so far into the future as to be not worth losing sleep in the present. She sees instead the breathtaking possibilities, as when Duke University researchers recently announced that they'd enabled a monkey to move a robot arm with its thoughts. "Just think about all the unfortunate people who lost a limb because of a mine or because of an accident," Rus says. "These people [potentially] can recover some of their senses and can function in our society. "

When people worked on group theory [an abstract mathematics branch] in the 18th century . . . they had absolutely no idea that in a couple of hundred years, their technology would make it possible for you to buy a book on Amazon," she says. "We're a very adaptive species. If something happens and we're not happy with it, we fix it. So I have great faith in the human species, that the right thing will happen."

The brown-shingle ranch that she and her husband bought outside Boston is decorated with Rus's paintings. The kids' room (the couple has two daughters, ages 2 and 4) has playful scenes of ducks on skis, a Barney-like creature, and two dancing fish out of Dr. Seuss.

Rus's own childhood was spent in the suffocating dark of Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship, partly sheltered by her family's privileged status. Her father was a computer scientist whose work took him abroad; her mother was a university physicist. Rus, their only child, inherited their interests. Virtual fences were conceived in the marriage of fascination with the way things worked and the desire to harness technology for practical use. "I remember wanting to build moving walkways" while on tiring outings with her folks, Rus says. Eventually, her father's outspokenness about the regime's deficiencies made it advisable to leave. American friends secured jobs for her parents in Iowa. Rus went to school there and at Cornell, where she got her PhD.

Rus's career choice made her distinctive, a she in the testosterone-laden world of computer science. Women collect fewer than 20 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees in the United States, according to the National Council for Research on Women. The statistics confirm the evidence of Rus's own eyes at professional conferences. "If you go to these meetings," she says, "and you look around and you see what the ratios are -- that's not good."

The numbers, some theorize, partly reflect the reality throughout the professions of women's continuing primary responsibility for home life. Fortunately, Rus says, her husband shares home duties and child-rearing. Having children has taught her many things -- what life can be like without a full night's sleep, being at work before 8 in the morning, not spending the night at work so you can pick the kids up from day care. Something else, too: Watching the miraculous capacity of a child's mind to absorb information, she realizes how far she has to go in her quest to endow robots with the intelligence to reshape themselves.

Looking at her children, Rus knows that something, call it God or nature, beat her to the punch: "I think, `Wow, that's what I've always been wanting to build.' "

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