NASA is sending two robots to college, just not to learn

Robots — they’re passing college entrance exams, and now they’re roaming the halls of universities everywhere. Alright, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement — there’s no imminent robot takeover of our institutions of higher learning, and they’re not a ubiquitous presence in our classrooms quite yet. But NASA is sending two R5 Valkyrie humanoid robots to college, only they’re not there to learn — we are. As per a recent press release from the renowned space agency, “Humanoid robots will be helpful to astronauts on our journey to Mars, so NASA has awarded prototypes to two universities for advanced research and development work.”

The two lucky universities playing host to the robots are both in Boston — MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) will get one, and Northeastern University will get the other. For two years, each institution will receive $250,000 annually in hopes that one (or both) of them will successfully develop an algorithm that will render these robots, you know, useful. Tasked with creating “better software for dexterous humanoid robots used in space missions,” just consider this one of the most expensive science fair projects you’ve ever seen.

“Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are excited to engage these university research groups to help NASA with this next big step in robotics technology development.”

Ultimately, the plan is to use these robots in place of humans on potentially dangerous missions to space, especially with recent research that suggests long-term missions may have adverse effects on the brain. At the end of the two-year research period, NASA hopes that the R5s will be ready to take part in the Space Robotics Challenge. So it looks like MIT and Northeastern have their homework cut out for them. But hey, at least no one can say that this work is pointless.