Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 484:
THE ROBOT LADY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 484.

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 finished part.

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 dystrophy.

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 humanity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Ringel, S.S., The Robot Lady. Carnegie Mellon Magazine, Spring, 1989., pp. 1216 et seq.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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