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Researchers Working to Develop Human-like Robots
March 27, 2014

"If aliens had access to YouTube they would think the Earth was populated by robots."

But as robotics expert Massimiliano Versace told a group at NASA Langley, that is not true – yet. And it is primarily because there are three barriers or "miracles that need to happen."

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For robots to become as commonplace as they were in the 1960s TV show, "The Jetsons," Versace says engineers need to develop a smart mind, a powerful brain and an inexpensive body. The role model for this kind of robot in real life, as in fiction, is the human being.

Versace has a doctorate in cognitive and neural systems and is the chief executive officer of Neurala, Inc., and the founding director of Boston University's Neuromorphics Lab. According to the Neurala website "he is a pioneer in the design of large scale, multi-system neural models that allow robots to interact and learn real-time in complex environments." Versace also is working with NASA Langley researcher Mark Motter as part of a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant, developing autonomous robotic systems for unmanned aircraft.

During his presentation "Neuromorphic Solutions for Autonomous Land and Aerial Vehicles" Versace said technologists have made a lot of strides in overcoming two of the three barriers to creating everyday robots. "The body is where the good news is," he added. Cell phone production has helped make manufacturing more affordable and there has been progress in sensors and actuators.  The "smart mind" part of the equation is looking up too with the development of sophisticated algorithms and software, but the "powerful brain" still eludes innovators.

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"Biological brains are complex," said Versace. "One of the most striking features of the biological brain is the huge amount of feedback [it receives]."

"It is very hard to simulate the brain," he added. "The brain has 100 billion neurons, 250 billion synapses in two liters, powered by 40 watts. "

Even a mouse brain would make a much better computer than what we have now, according to Versace. "At 416 grams and 71 million neurons – if our computers were as smart as a mouse brain we would be set," said Versace.

But two recent developments give Versace hope that technology will conquer the powerful brain challenge. One is the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a National Institutes of Health effort aimed at better understanding the human brain. The other is industry's creation of a biologically inspired neural processing unit computer chip.

Versace's visit to NASA Langley was sponsored by the newly created Autonomy Incubator, led by researcher Danette Allen. The incubator is looking to bridge the gap between automated systems that are preprogrammed with a set amount of information and truly autonomous ones that can sense and adapt to new environments.

"We are looking across the space and aeronautics domains to build a core group that solve similar problems to what we do now, but in a different way," said Allen. Allen said she agrees with Versace that the way to do that is to build systems that learn from experiences in the same way humans do.

Kathy Barnstorff
NASA Langley Research Center

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Massimiliano Versace
Robotics expert Massimiliano Versace shared the latest advancements in the quest to develop more human-like robots in a talk at NASA Langley.
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NASA/Kathy Barnstorff
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Autonomous Technology
In addition to his work in human-like robotics, Versace is working with NASA Langley researcher Mark Motter on autonomous robotic systems for unmanned aircraft. They use this remotely piloted aircraft to test those systems.
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NASA/Mark Motter
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Page Last Updated: March 27th, 2014
Page Editor: Joe Atkinson