One on One: Fredkin Professor of Robotics, Dr. William L. “Red” Whittaker

Interviewed by Noah Graff

Today’s Machining World Archives December 2006 Volume 2 Issue 12

Dr. William L. “Red” Whittaker is the Fredkin Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. He has developed robots for tasks such as space exploration, volcano interior exploration, and assessment of the damage at the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. He was the team leader for the Carnegie Mellon Red Team whose self-driving robotic cars, Sandstorm and Highlander, finished in second and third place in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, a 132 mile race for driverless cars through the desert Southwest. He is the team leader for Carnegie Mellon’s Tartan Racing team in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.

Why are robots important for the world?
Robots will alter the way we develop the world, secure the world, feed the world and explore other worlds. Everything that we have came ultimately from farming or mining, and robots have great roles in that.

What is your biggest challenge in preparing for the DARPA Urban Challenge?
The biggest challenge is developing the computer skill for passing, merging, and driving in intersections, and combining those skills for driving a complete route. The robot is required to blend those skills to create a performance that we would call driving.

How did you feel not finishing first in the DARPA Grand Challenge?
The technological achievement is what mattered – that we came away with a clear sense of a rock solid comprehensive technology.

How do you think most people see this technology?
People are very intrigued and very hungry to see it and experience it. It goes with any breakthrough technology. It was no different in the age of the Wright Brothers with flying machines. How about cars – in 1906, the Model T wasn’t even thought about. There were just a couple of experiments in garages. It’s the same thing with computers. They all start the same way. They go on to change the world in bigger ways than the pioneers perceived. And the people who begin the work are not the ones who play because they’re paid; they play for the love of the game. And almost no one really sees the end use and the enterprise that results.

But what about entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison who invented things to make money?
You’re right that there are Edisons of the technology, and Henry Fords. And I want to make it very clear that no one who I’m speaking about or represent is allergic to money or is resisting the tremendous pull of the market. But what you want to see is that each of those different kinds of people brings different dimensions to the evolution of a movement. Robotics or automated driving does not yet have its Bill Gates or Henry Ford. It does already have its Wright Brothers and maybe even it’s Charles Lindbergh.

Do you see robots ever being able to think like human beings?
No, but in some cases much better than humans.

What kind of car do you drive?
Because I’m a farmer, there’s some pretty rough hardware in my stable, everything from beat-up dump trucks to bulldozers. My daily beater is a 1991 GEO with 225,000 miles on it, and it gets hammered.

Have you always been a farmer?
No, I chose it about a decade ago. And I didn’t have any experience whatsoever with farming. So I took it on with my muscle – not my mind, giving it everything that I had and not letting myself think about it in the interim.

Did you do it to get away from machines a bit?
God no! I don’t know where people get that kind of stuff. No, I love machines. I love the physical world, teams and groups and institutions and day jobs. It’s just wonderful to have something that’s just solitary and physical and in a different world. A consequence, by the way, is the invention of the first farm machine automation.

If you could be any machine, what would you be?
A tractor. It develops and feeds the world, and it is so incredibly connected to history and people. And because it has the power and the diversity and persistence to do great things from nothing.

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