The Shakey Connection

by Mary Martialay on January 18, 2011

In the back row of this photo featuring Shakey are RPI alums Bert Raphael (second from left) and Peter Hart (second from right). Image credit: Robot Hall of Fame.

After Rensselaer announced launch of a new Cognitive Robotics lab, I received a message from a Rensselaer alum who, in the 1960 and 70s, worked on the first mobile robot able to reason about its own actions.

Bert Raphael, along with RPI alum Peter Hart, helped develop “Shakey the Robot” at SRI International’s artificial intelligence lab. 

SRI International’s website gave this description of Shakey:

“Shakey had a TV camera, a triangulating range finder, and bump sensors, and was connected to DEC PDP-10 and PDP-15 computers via radio and video links. Shakey used programs for perception, world-modeling, and acting. Low-level action routines took care of simple moving, turning, and route planning. Intermediate level actions strung the low level ones together in ways that robustly accomplished more complex tasks. The highest level programs could make and execute plans to achieve goals given it by a user. The system also generalized and saved these plans for possible future use.”

Raphael – who contacted Rensselaer after reading about the new Cognitive Robotics lab – added that:

“Part of our project was concerned with natural language research. Commands were given to Shakey by typing simple English sentences (on a Model 33 Teletype machine), which the system would parse into mathematical formulas that then invoked appropriate lower-level software routines.”

In his message to me, Raphael marveled at the changes that time has wrought on cognitive robotics research:

“Two key members of the “Shakey” group– Peter Hart and myself– were RPI undergraduate alums, although no one at RPI was even dreaming about such research in those days,” Raphael wrote. “It’s exciting to see that the experiments that once required million-dollar-class computers and labs, are now feasible as undergraduate projects.”

Rapheal’s message concludes with his offer of “best wishes to the lab!”