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Robotics: Hephaestus does it again

Jean-Paul Laumond

Introducing Jean-Paul Laumond

Inaugural lecture given on Thursday 19 January 2012

Pierre Corvol
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1Dear Colleague,
Dear Jean-Paul Laumond,

2The annual Chair of Technological Innovation, supported by the Liliane Bettencourt Foundation, provides an opportunity for new disciplines to express themselves at the Collège de France. That is the case of robotics, which was born fifty years ago and has since grown at an impressive pace.

3Robotics produces machines animated by movements controlled by a computer. It draws on many other disciplines, including automatic control engineering, signal processing, computing, and the mathematical processing of complex data. In the 1960s the first industrial robots appeared on assembly lines in the car industry. The beginnings of robotics were thus in manufacturing.

4Today robotics plays an essential role in many sectors: industry, aeronautics, space technology, the military field, personal help, and health. Over a million patients have undergone surgical operations with (and not by) a robot. Anthropomorphic robots took their first steps on earth long ago, and now motorized vehicles ride around on Mars! Financial investments by big companies and governments match the huge potential of robotics. Experts at Metra Martech estimate the number of jobs that could be created in industrial robotics at around one million.

5Robots act through movement in and on the real world. Very early on the necessity appeared to give robots the ability to decide, to be autonomous, to learn by taking into account the physical world, and to interact with other machines and with humans. Making robots talented, skilled and efficient —I won’t use the word intelligent— is one of the fascinating aspects of robotics. We give robots some of our intelligence, but biologists can ask the opposite question: can robots contribute, to some extent, to our understanding of life forms?

6You are one of the leading specialists in humanoid robotics. After studying mathematics at the University of Toulouse, you turned your attention to what was then a nascent field, robotics, in which you were awarded a PhD. You are currently a director of research at the CNRS in France’s largest robotics laboratory, the LAAS (Laboratoire d’Analyse et d’Architecture des Systèmes).

7Your skills are both theoretical and practical: you are an international expert on movement control algorithms, you participated in the creation of the company Kineo in 2005, and you are one of the founders of the group Gepetto at the LAAS, which designs virtual prototypes of humanoid robots. Your work is a fine example of the engineer’s pragmatism at the service of the researcher’s dream.

8We would also like to dream. Have humans not always imagined the creation of beings in their image: demigods or docile servants, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the humanoid robot in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, cinema’s first robot, a mechanical but singularly sensual being?

9So let’s dream a little, for the duration of a lecture. Did you not consider entitling this inaugural lecture: “Robotics: Hephaestus’ recurrent dream”?

© Collège de France, 2012

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