Ahoy: Meet The Navy's Humanoid Robot

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This year, the Navy brought more than ships and sailors to Fleet Week in New York City. Octavia, the Navy's "MDS" robot (for mobile, dexterous, social), is on display. Science Friday spoke with Greg Trafton, section head of intelligent systems at the Naval Research Laboratory, about the challenges of designing a robot that acts like a person.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, here with Flora Lichtman. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Ahoy, Ira.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's Fleet Week, isn't it?

LICHTMAN: That's right. That was the clue to the video.

FLATOW: Our Video Pick of the Week is a nautical theme?

LICHTMAN: Yes. Yes. So the Navy is in town for Fleet Week. But this year they brought a special visitor. It's not just sailors - or human sailors, I should say. They brought along their humanoid robot Octavia.

FLATOW: Octavia.

LICHTMAN: Which - who we met up with at the pier the other day.

FLATOW: And this is a special Navy robot or just an experiment? Or what does Octavia do? You went out there and you interviewed the...

LICHTMAN: We interviewed Octavia and found out a little bit more about her. We spoke with Greg Trafton, who is head of the Intelligence System Section at the Naval Research Lab. And he sort of took us on a tour of this robot, which is about - it's like she's, I think, 5'8" - probably...

FLATOW: It's a she?

LICHTMAN: She, mm-hmm. Definitely a she.

FLATOW: Not an it...

LICHTMAN: No, mm-mm. They've referred to her as a she.

FLATOW: I'm sorry.

LICHTMAN: Very humanoid.

FLATOW: Excuse me.

LICHTMAN: Emphasis on human-ish.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And she does all this sort of, kind of, weird party tricks that we got to see, including playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with another SCIENCE FRIDAY producer, Aleszu.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so you went out there and recorded these party tricks.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And...

FLATOW: And what's the point of - there's got to be a serious side, right?

LICHTMAN: I should say, it's not really about the party tricks...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...because if you think about something like Rock, Paper, Scissors, I mean it's an engineering marvel, actually, to get a machine to play this game, because you have to count, you have to, you know, what she does is actually take into account her opponent's pattern of play to decide what she's going to play next. So there's sort of a lot going on in this. But, you know, there's a lot of challenges, like, how do you get cameras to recognize hand gestures, for example?

FLATOW: Right. So it's basically - it's an idea - how does a computer become socialized and react with people.

LICHTMAN: Right. And that's what Greg Trafton really looks at. His background is in psychology, actually. And he studies humans, really, I think, to figure out how to program robots.

FLATOW: Hmm. And because he's in the Navy, he must still be a wacky, geeky type of guy, even though he's in the Navy, right?

LICHTMAN: You know, that was the fun part. It was really, you know, it's - this seemed to be a project really about basic research more than about applications. And the idea is that, I think, decades down the line maybe you would see an Octavia-like robot on a ship, but at this juncture it's about making a robot that interacts well and autonomously with humans, and so they do things like play games.

FLATOW: Play games. Right. It's interesting. You're going to love this video. It's up on our website at sciencefriday.com. It's Flora Lichtman and our Video Pick of the Week. It's up there on our website, on our homepage, right there in the left side. And while you're up there, you can look at all the other videos we have up there. Have a happy holiday to you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira, you too.

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