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Is your toaster a robot? Chris Urmson on what makes a car a robot

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, May 17, 2018, 1:21 p.m.
Disney's 'The Brave Little Toaster' (Photo from the official Facebook page for the Disney movie, 'The Brave Little Toaster')
Disney's 'The Brave Little Toaster' (Photo from the official Facebook page for the Disney movie, 'The Brave Little Toaster')
Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, talks with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards, about the development of self-driving cars during the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Downtown, Pittsburgh. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)
Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, talks with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards, about the development of self-driving cars during the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Downtown, Pittsburgh. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)

Is your toaster a robot?

It's a silly question. Or is it?

Chris Urmson said robotics researchers used that question to debate what makes a robot a robot during his work at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It senses, right," Urmson said during a TechCrunch Session event on robotics last week at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's got a little timer thing so your toast gets hot enough, and then pops your toast out, and it's got an actuator because it pops your toast out."

Sensing and then acting based on that sensing sounds like the basics of a robot.

Urmson, of course, wasn't talking about toasters when he was talking about toasters. Urmson is the CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation. He was the former head of Google's self-driving car program and pioneered autonomous vehicle research while at CMU.

Urmson was asked at the TechCrunch event at what point cars are truly robotic. In a world where toasters are robots, cars right now are robots too, Urmson said. But that's not good enough for Urmson.

"What we're pushing for at Aurora is cars that can actually drive themselves and you can turn your back on them and trust it," Urmson said.

And we all know what happens when you turn your back on a toaster.

Aurora is testing self-driving cars around Pittsburgh and in California. The company has deals with Volkswagen, Hyundai and the Chinese electric car startup BYTON. It recently opened a larger office in Pittsburgh and is aggressively hiring.

Urmson spoke last month in Pittsburgh as part of the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit. He called for careful regulation of self-driving cars and talked about the importance of fully developing the technology.

"We do worry about the perfect being the enemy of the good," Urmson said during the summit. "The status quo is unacceptable. … We can't forget that what we have now is broken so holding this technology up to the point where it needs to be perfect is not the right answer."

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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