TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves

The life of a robot


About Sepehr 

Sepehr Ghassemi designs and builds robots. With backgrounds in Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Design, and Photography, he is currently a PHD candidate at the Robotics and Mechanisms Lab at UCLA and a multi-time RoboCup champion. His projects have attracted global attention and include full size disaster relief humanoids, legged walking balloons, and even artificial organs and limbs. Sep’s projects aim to improve lives and create technologies that accelerate human evolution.


[to robot] Hey, not you! Me. Get out.

Hi. Do you guys like robots? Yeah? Me too. But are you also, y’know, terrified of them? Be honest.

Yeah I mean there are a lot of bad guy robots in the movies, but I am concerned about the people because robots only do what they are programmed to do.

But sometimes you feel for them and because we treat them as if they’re alive. Why is it that my friends who love the robot this much but a wrench is just a wrench. Is it the cute googly eyes? Yeah. It is. But regardless of the looks, robots are tools. Just like our arms, phones, and wrenches, they are tools. They are technological extensions of us, letting us go over barriers and do more.

Okay. When I was born, I had a cleft lip and palate condition. It limited me from breathing and speaking and drinking milk properly. With orthodontics and surgery, doctors fixed me. It made me believe that you can take limitations and crush them.

As I grew to a teen… as I grew to a teen, I curiously wandered around, poking at every different topic. One day I am dissecting insects, the other the living room is a woodshop, and there I’m arguing with my dad because he said I can never live in the fifth dimension.

But one day my parents sit me down and tell me this: “Sepher, you have to choose one thing that you want to focus your life on. And if you branch into too many things, you will never be successful.” Now this should have been obvious. But to me it felt like someone asking me to shoot my dreams dead. Couldn’t do it, love them too much.

So I blindly followed my heart with zero experience. I persisted on trying to reach for them, but I was too short on time. I wish I could do more. Maybe clone myself, somehow extend myself. And maybe one idea was to make a lot of kids and have an army of minions.

Anyways, fast-forward to my late teens. I am finishing up my Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and industrial design, I’m taking biology, architecture, and film courses, my photography is popular, and I am also trying to start and run businesses. and I have zero kids. So everything seems great, except it’s not.

My body is giving up on me. I am working like a robot, sleeping a few hours a day a few days a week. I feel like my biological limitations have held me down, pinned me down and they whispered, “Hey greedy kid, reach your dreams in your dreams.” Bedtime. Lights out. I felt like hell.

I stepped back a little, thought a lot, and did I give up? Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t do anything if I wasn’t healthy. Sometimes you can’t do what you can’t do, right? I mean, we don’t have wings. Can’t fly. It is what it is, right?

And months later I was flying down to L.A. and I’m trying to upload some cluttering repetitive work online. I was so frustrated it motivated me to come back home, write software, and automate all my tasks. I sleep, software works. See, software is like a stream of thought that can repeat and do work in the virtual environment, in the virtual world.

Now what if we could extend that to the physical world? Lights back on. I’m going to extend myself with programmable hardware. Aspirations? Healing. I joined RoMeLa and started getting involved with humanoid robots designed like humans to work in human environments: drive cars, turn valves, use tools, do all the… do all the dull, dirty, dangerous work we don’t want to do.

The idea that one day, instead of a person, a robot will storm into a burning building and save a person’s life intrigued me. In that future, we would no longer be limited to our location.

But that future seemed distant. The cutting-edge tech still had a long way to go. Robots couldn’t walk reliably. They fell a lot. They were too unsafe, too complex.

So we simplified, reconfigured the legs. See, without biological blood vessels and nerves we could have the knees just rotate continuously. We didn’t have to be limited to the human form, nor did we have to fit to the human functionalities.

What if we could build a robot that never falls? Put helium balloons, insect joints, inspiration from insect joints, and orthodontics material in a blender, and…

Thank you. To be honest I was just playing with balloons and getting a Ph.D. out of it. But the fact that this went popular everywhere was like a thumbs-up to having more fun.

Here I am playing with bubbles trying to make tangible screens. And here I’m wearing a VR headset looking from the perspective of a robot as our head motions are synced.

See, after that, my mind… [explosion sound] Why? Because imagine: imagine a future where you can control yourself, all your senses and your motions, through robotic bodies that don’t care about location, form, function, or size. Maybe we could shrink doctors, have them go inside your body. Or maybe go full-on Gulliver: step over buildings, look down, and just not sweat the little things in life. See, maybe we could connect to everything, be everywhere, do everything.

Now I try a lot of things. Why can’t we do all of them? I don’t know. What I do know is that robots always fail and fall. We have to persist, fail, fix. My advisor, Dr. Dennis Hong, always says: “If a robot doesn’t fall and break, you don’t learn anything.” It’s the same with humans too, and I think once we get comfortable with this we become fearless and just try things.

See, you wanna try something? Try seeing with your mind. It’s far into the future. Not that sci-fi movie future. Your future. A peaceful one. You are sitting on a bench, swirling your morning coffee. Sunlight shines through light green leaves as they dance in the breeze. There are butterflies around, not noisy machines. And we have fixed most of the problems: no conflicts, no disease.

So we spend our time doing our most important desires, our thoughts, our exploration, love. As you are sipping your coffee, you are connected to a robot body on a beach, on another galaxy watching a silver sun set as you scribble a special person’s name on your Scarlet sack. You’re free, capable. You feel it. Doesn’t it feel like heaven?

But quit daydreaming. Wake up. That’s a dream. So is today, for the people of the past. For the cavemen, we are Superman. Or maybe we are Batman, because it’s our tools that make us special. Our technology’s magical. It extends us.

It’s not necessary, yet without we feel disability. ‘Cause it gives us this ability to strive for new capabilities. It’s evolution on demand. And I know it’s not perfect but it’s not about the clutter, not the details, not the code, not the sensors, not the shapes, not the motors, not the robots, but that kid’s instinctive nature to grow, learn, do more. That kid is me and you.

And if we choose to evolve ourselves, we’d better get up. Crush limitations, don’t crush dreams. Realize our dreams. We’d better realize our dreams and spread our ideas like dandelions because we are going through this path as a species, flowing through time on this sphere in space, floating. And if the universe is our knowledge, together we can look and find more bright stars and light it up.

You can light this path but don’t get too sentimental. Get up, think, do, and have fun with it. Thanks.