ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Robots are going head-to-head in a competition this morning in California. It's not quite the type of thing you might remember from a high school science fair. This robotics challenge is sponsored by the Department of Defense. We asked NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel to have a look at what they're up to.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: I grew up in the 1980s. So when I hear the Pentagon's developing a new generation of faster, smarter robots, all I can think of is "The Terminator."
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MICHAEL BIEHN: (As Kyle Reese) The Terminator's an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it's a hyper-alloy combat chassis, microprocessor-controlled, fully armored, very tough. But outside...
BRUMFIEL: When I called the government's Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, I got straight to the point.
We've all seen the movies. We've seen "Terminator." We know what you're up to - killer robots, obviously - right?
GILL PRATT: Well, so I would beg to differ. That's not what we're up to.
BRUMFIEL: Gill Pratt is running this competition. And he says the military's motivation comes from the real world, not the movies. In March of 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan melted down. Radiation was everywhere. The Pentagon sent in some of the best robots it had to go where no humans could. But the robots struggled. They couldn't open doors. They got snagged in rubble. Communications were spotty.
PRATT: The particular capabilities those robots had were really not up to the task that needed to happen.
BRUMFIEL: That's how this robotic challenge was born. The robots will be asked to work in a mock disaster zone based on Fukushima. They must use tools, open a valve, climb over debris and get out, all with bad communications between the robots and the people running them. Robotics engineer Dennis Hong says it's a tall order.
DENNIS HONG: Just a robot to pick up a cup on a table is a very, very, very difficult task to do.
BRUMFIEL: Hong works at UCLA and has a robot in the competition called THOR.
HONG: (Through voice synthesizer) Do not fear me, NPR listeners. I am THOR, Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot, and I am here to help.
BRUMFIEL: Actually, robots can't talk. That's just Hong typing into a voice synthesizer. There's a lot of other things robots can't do either.
HONG: We have a lot of people come to our lab, and we show our robots. They walk and do things. And everybody's amazed. But after about 30 seconds, the kids always ask, why can't it do that? Why can't it climb this ladder? Why can't it run around? And I tell them, no, we don't have that technology yet, but we're working on it. And they say, no, no, no, I saw it last week. Of course, they saw it on TV and science fiction movies.
BRUMFIEL: Real robots are awkward, and they're not very smart. Brett Kennedy works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He's also got a robot in the competition and a 4-year-old daughter at home.
BRETT KENNEDY: Unlike your child, the robot's going to do exactly what you tell it. So if you don't tell it the right thing, it's going to do the wrong thing.
BRUMFIEL: Take opening a door. If the operator doesn't tell the robot exactly where the knob is...
KENNEDY: Then you just missed the door handle.
BRUMFIEL: But progress is possible. Ten years ago, the Pentagon held a competition for self-driving cars. Many of the winning engineers were hired by Google. And today, Google has self-driving cars being tested on the open road. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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