Today, we breathe our own humanity into our
machines. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
When is it too late to
embark on a new life? At what age are we the thing
we were meant to become? In answer to that, I give
you K.G. Engelhardt. She managed restaurants until
her mid-thirties. Then she went to Stanford and did
degrees in human biology and psychology.
In her 40s she began working with robots in a VA
hospital. A decade later, she's the Chairman of the
National Service Robot Association and a major
force in the field.
We hear more about production robots than service
robots. A production robot carries out sequences of
production tasks -- drilling, reaming, shaping. A
robot might do twenty operations and produce a
A service robot does what a human servant might
once have done. It necessarily takes on human
attributes. A good service robot feels like a human
to its user. Engelhardt pays close attention to
that side of her robots.
Now she directs service robot work at Carnegie
Mellon. She's also a graduate student there, but
that seems quite incidental. She's surrounded with
a dazzling array of almost human companions. One
makes and serves pizza. She calls it PizzaBot.
But look more closely at the machines that populate
her world. A hospital robot serves meals and pills
to patients on complex schedules -- schedules that
could lead a nurse to make mistakes. A 90-year-old
man -- infirm -- uses a voice-activated robot to
paint pictures and play games. Another robot sorts
mail and makes phone calls for a man with muscular
Engelhardt does a very strange thing. Machines are
supposed to dehumanize us. Yet these machines
breathe human dignity back into the lives of people
who have been robbed of dignity. They offer a human
hand to people who have been denied it.
Her aging mother was denied pets. Engelhardt
provided the lady with a robot that served as both
pet and security system. It eased her last years.
It even had a name -- Ropet.
Naming is important to her. After all, a service
robot ought to be anthropomorphic. The whole point
is to endow it with a human dimension. Finally we
get the point. A good human designer always endows
his machines with himself. That's what she's doing.
Here's a designer who loves people and doesn't fear
to take up a new existence in midlife. Naturally,
her robots mirror that joie de vivre.
Naturally, her machines own a piece of her
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds