I, Puppet

Building nicer robots in a USF lab

click to enlarge I WANT TO BE A REAL ROBOT: Van Phu with a - robot prototype, and William Lorenzen with one of - his marionettes. - Susan F. Edwards
Susan F. Edwards
I WANT TO BE A REAL ROBOT: Van Phu with a robot prototype, and William Lorenzen with one of his marionettes.

It all starts innocently enough. Humans build robots to do what people can't or don't want to do, then we start to trust and depend on them. Before you know it, machine men are trying to take over the world, killing the very humans they were built to serve and protect.That's the premise of I, Robot, a new movie inspired by an Isaac Asimov story. The action takes place in 2035, not so awfully far in the future. It may be starting right now in a University of South Florida laboratory, where there's a plot afoot to make robots seem oh-so-trustworthy.

The unlikely co-conspirators are USF Professor and Director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue Robin Murphy, her student assistant Van Phu, and USF Theater Professor William Lorenzen, long known for his work with marionettes.

The center specializes in developing robots that can locate and provide medical assistance to people trapped under rubble after earthquakes and other disasters.

Murphy led one of four teams of scientists and robot engineers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 for the first known search-and-rescue operation using robots. The robots, which look like miniature tanks, descended as deep as 60 feet into the burning rubble to reach areas too small or too hot for humans or dogs. Although they found no survivors, they did locate the remains of several victims.

So how does a puppetmaker fit into the scientist's plans? I visited Bill Lorenzen in his lair to find out. It's a small room — really a large, unventilated closet — tucked away in a corner of the University Theater Center. Behind a door marked "Hand Props and Puppetry Lab," a locked wood and chicken-wire gate gives the place the feel of an underground bunker. The image persists beyond the gate, where every wall and surface is crammed with stuff. Puppets hang from the ceiling like miniature condemned prisoners, rendered even more eerie by the shrouds covering their heads, leaving only their hands and feet visible. Lorenzen says the shrouds keep dust off the puppets' heads. He lifts the shrouds to reveal lovely, sculpted creatures, many of which bear an uncanny resemblance to him.

One of the challenges faced by the search-and-rescue robot engineers, he says, is that research has shown some people find the robots a little creepy. So he's working with the scientists to give their robots more comforting, lifelike properties. He locates a slender, naked puppet with delicate features, curly brown hair and large, dark, glassy blue eyes that summons images of the robot in the Stepford Wives teasers. He's about the size of a 2- or 3-year-old child. On the back of his head is a brown wooden knob that looks as if it might once have adorned a drawer in a nightstand, and in the middle of his back is a battery. "This is Miguel," says Lorenzen, explaining that he was built for a play that toured in the schools. The battery is there because Miguel's eyes light up, a trait he owes to his magical heritage. "His mother is Cuban, and his father is a lake fairy."

Lorenzen, who has two grown children, carries Miguel in the crook of his arm like a baby as we walk across campus to the robotics lab. On the way, he explains that he's been working with Van Phu, using puppets to demonstrate comforting gestures that might be incorporated into a rescue robot's movement repertoire.

In the robot lab, Lorenzen introduces Van Phu and Cordelia, a remote-control, search-and-rescue robot that looks like a miniature tank. Cordelia is about the size of a shoebox, but much flatter, and is outfitted with a collar where the smaller companion robot they're working on will fit. The companion robot, which doesn't have a name yet, will be detached and left to comfort and monitor a trapped person while Cordelia continues searching or transports supplies and medications. The companion robot is about the size of a deck of cards and has a thumb-size, flexible neck extending from its top, and will likely be equipped with a light, a television camera and a speaker.

Lorenzen suggests it might play music. "I'm thinking if you're lying there and something comes at you in the dark, it's scary, but if it's playing music — maybe like the ice cream wagon — it taps into one of those basic, fundamental positive experiences."

What they're working on today, though, is not sounds but gestures that might be comforting to a person who has lost the ability to hear or who maybe doesn't speak the same language as the rescuer. Since their last meeting, the robot's neck has been shortened because it was too serpentine, and Van Phu has programmed in some basic movements. From a computer screen, you can select buttons labeled attention, happy, surprise, empathy, sorrow and content, though at this point, all the robot can really do is turn in a circle, nod and shake its so-far nonexistent head back and forth. The group has no plans to make it look like a person, a dog or anything organic. "Sometimes less is more," says Lorenzen. "If you make it look like Bambi, it's going to be too cute."

After the meeting, we return to the Theater building, where a dance class is in session in the studio next to Lorenzen's cubby. A shaggy young man comes out of the studio, sees Lorenzen cradling Miguel and does a double take. "Whoa," he says, "that's weird."

Contact Contributing Editor Susan Edwards at [email protected].


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