Manuela Veloso is one of the world’s most renowned roboticists, artificial-intelligence researchers and hand talkers. Born and raised in Portugal, Veloso has spent most of the past 40 years lecturing to packed halls. When she’s really feeling one of her greatest hits — the creation of her robot soccer team, the eternal mysteries of AI — she puts her whole body into it, like the Tina Turner of computer science. Today, Veloso is telling a eureka story. In 2010, she and her fellow researchers were working on robots designed to navigate their way across the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. “Literally, there was always a problem,” says Veloso. “A door would be closed. There was water on the floor. Stupid people would stand in front of the robot. I mean, it was just a nightmare.” After a year passed with little progress, she woke one night with a jolt. “At 3 a.m. in the middle of Pittsburgh, I realized: This is never going to happen.” The robots were constantly demonstrating what they couldn’t do, but, lying in bed, Veloso was struck by a simple thing they could do. “It cannot press the elevator button but it could say, ‘Human, can you press the elevator button for me?’ Or ‘Human, can you get out of the way?’ This was the revelation!” The robots were renamed CoBots. They’ve since covered thousands of miles crossing Carnegie Mellon’s campus and escorted hundreds of visitors to Veloso’s office. Thanks to Veloso, the concept of human and robot cooperation is now called symbiotic autonomy — and if you have a white-collar job, you might want to throw that phrase on a Post-it, or a tattoo.
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