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Inaugural Lectures

Robotics: Hephaestus is Starting all Over Again

Jean-Paul Laumond
p. 29

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture19 January 2012

Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

Texte intégral

1Hephaestus is starting all over again with new Pandoras. They are no longer of clay, but mecatronic. And they are animated. The roboticist keeps on asking the question of autonomy: what adaptability can we hope to give these new machines? The analogy between humans and machines has to be made; it cannot be avoided. In the end, does Hephaestus have the keys to knowledge? With his machines that adapt, that “decide” on their actions, what can he tell us about our own “functioning”? The question is both dangerous and beautiful.

2The danger is epistemic. Robotics cannot serve as an alibi for biology. A biological model cannot be validated on a robotic platform. Even though models of life forms can be simulated on computer, and robots can be controlled on the basis of these principles – sometimes very effectively –, it is in no way possible to conclude on their validity simply because they are operational in robotics. It is not because a roboticist successfully uses a bio-inspired model that this success says anything about the validity of that model. And conversely, it is not because the roboticist is capable of making a robot navigate in an environment cluttered with obstacles that we know how humans or animals solve the same problem.

  • 1 Translator's note: Allusion is made here to Alphonse de Lamartine's poem “Milly ou la terre natale” (...)

3If the roboticist can identify with Hephaestus and can shape Pandora out of clay, he is neither Athena nor Geppetto. He will never give any humanity to clay or wood. A robot is a machine controlled by a computer; nothing else. Although animated, it remains and will remain an inanimate object without a soul that becomes attached to our soul [and without] the power of love1. Let us allow the demi-gods to talk, let us enjoy works by Fritz Lang and Mary Shelley, and let us not be afraid. But are we actually anxious? That is not so sure. In any case, our Japanese friends aren't, they who are so different from us; they for whom union is possible.

4The question of the analogy between humans and humanoid robots is hazardous; it had to be answered. It is also fine and fascinating, provided we give it some rigorous substance.

5Lets take locomotion as an example. What trajectory does an individual take to leave a room? How can all the motors of a humanoid robot be coordinated to perform the same task? The question is precise. It concerns the relationship between the motor space and the physical space. This relationship is a key to understanding our relations to the world. Henri Poincaré set the terms. That is where the power of mathematics lies, in proposing a formulation common to science and techniques, and it is this foundation that is contributing today to the emergence of new fields such as neuro-robotics.

6The main challenge of biped locomotion is balance. Today's humanoid robots have flat feet. Force sensors to measure the effort placed under the robot's feet show the position of the centre of pressure at any point in time. This principle of understanding means that they lack suppleness.

7Neurophysiologists have a radically different approach: nature shows that the reference framework at the origin of the control of locomotion is in the head (the information is given by the vestibular system). Locomotion has to be envisaged as a process starting from the eyes and going towards the feet, and not the opposite. The message is clear. The principle has been discovered; the roboticist just has to invent it. It is not enough to say; one also has to do. Moreover, the child him- or herself has to “invent” it over a long learning period. What are the mechanisms driving this learning? That is a question concer­ning neurophysio­logists and roboticists alike, and which fuels the fertile tension. Dialogue is possible: the probabilistic models­, for example, are there to describe the processes. The fact remains however that, even if the correlation between two variables enables roboticists to stabilize their robots, it says nothing about the causal relations. In any case, they pay little attention to that, condemned as they are to doing. And if they can invent a method that can do without this learning phase, so much the better. I am deliberately over-stressing the point: we never protect ourselves enough from “dangerous analogies”.

• Videos of lectures available online at

• The Chair is supported by the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation

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1 Translator's note: Allusion is made here to Alphonse de Lamartine's poem “Milly ou la terre natale”: “… objets inanimés, avez vous donc une âme// qui s’attache à notre âme et la force d’aimer ?”

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Référence électronique

Jean-Paul Laumond, « Robotics: Hephaestus is Starting all Over Again », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2015, consulté le 18 janvier 2019. URL :

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Jean-Paul Laumond

Senior Researcher at LAAS-CNRS in Toulouse. He created the GEPETTO research team, whose work touches on the computational foundations of anthropomorphic movement (in humans and in artificial systems).

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