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Maseeh Robot Lab: Perkowski’s ‘Legos for adults’
Author: Mary Breaden, The Vanguard
Posted: March 4, 2013

Read the original story in The Vanguard.

Do robots have souls?

Marek Perkowski (also known as “Dr. Roboto”), professor of electrical engineering, speculated on this potential, as well as on quantum robotics, during Wednesday night’s presentation on cyber theater and robotics.

“When I was a young person in Poland, building a robot was much more difficult,” Perkowski said, beginning his talk by encouraging people to experiment with building their own robots.

He said anyone can find the materials they need to build a robot at their local Home Depot.

“I call this Legos for adults,” he said. “You just need more pieces.”

Perkowski’s focus has been on building robots that can recognize a variety of gestures and languages and respond in kind.

A robot detects the presence of a person using a series of algorithms to detect facial and body gestures. Perkowski said that robots can use these equations to detect gender. In order to recognize a beautiful person, a robot must first be shown examples of beauty and ugliness.

“You don’t program them, you teach them,” he said.

Perkowski presented the audience with diagrams and photos of a typical robot’s makeup. He suggested providing a robot with a four-wheel base to allow “innovative, explorative behaviors.” At the robot’s base—an intricate work of wires and gearboxes—are sensors that make it possible for the robot to detect and avoid obstacles.

In order to demonstrate a robot’s facial gestures, Perkowski said that he and his students rigged a tablet that had programmed responses that prompted the screen to display a smile or a frown and mounted it atop the robot to serve as its head.

“Everybody I work with feels that every robot has some kind of personality,” Perkowski said. He said he’s been working with psychology students to measure this scientifically.

Perkowski then presented the cast of characters that comprise his greatest passion: the Portland Cyber Theatre Project, where robots named after significant inventors and scientists can walk and dance. Much of this was inspired by Korean theater, he said.

“For Sonbi, the Confucian scholar, I used an original Korean mask,” Perkowski said. Sir Isaac Newton, Dr. Albert Einstein, Dr. Niels Bohr and Schrodinger’s cat also made appearances.

“We performed the play for a few groups of students, but it was boring, so we had to make it more engaging for them,” Perkowski said, shrugging.

Behind a large window in the Engineering Building’s basement, several characters from Perkowski’s robot theater pose mid-gesture. Inside the workroom are plastic boxes filled with screws and gold plates, the bits and pieces that will perhaps create more characters for the robot theater.

“Little kids surround the robots and completely lose their minds because they’re so happy,” Perkowski said. He suspects that shy and socially awkward people can learn social skills from robot gestures.

In addition to his playful interest in robotic theater, Perkowski is passionate about developing his “quantum robot,” Qubot 1. This robot will use quantum computing to perform actions faster and with more precision.

“Robotics technology that was a dream for many years is here,” Perkowski said.

“Robots are great adventures for students,” he added. “This is exactly how we should teach people: solving practical problems.”