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Giving The Next Generation Of Robots A Healthy Dose Of Heart And Soul

From Tokyo, Japan to Esslingen, Germany, researchers are coming up with ways to make robots more intelligent, autonomous and even sensitive. One test bot knows how to make popcorn – without burning the kernels. Another is being designed to keep senior cit

Service robot ''L2B2''
Hook me up with some love. (Arenamontanus)
Christoph Schmidt
Oliver Klempert and Thomas Jüngling

BERLIN - A group of small robots – each about the size of a hand and weighing 50 grams – lift off and fly across the room before settling down to play the title song from a James Bond movie. Four of the machines play specific synthesizer keys, while the others play a drum, cymbals, a kind of xylophone and an e-guitar. All of the machines are controlled by camera and laser scanner.

The flying musical robots, developed at the University of Pennsylvania, typify what technicians the world over are presently working on: machines with human characteristics. The goal isn't just to make them look and move like people, but to also make them as intelligent and capable of learning as their human creators.

It may sounds like science fiction, but some startling advancements have already been made. Robots, for example, have a better sense of sight and smell than they used to. Movement is still a little jerky, but new technologies for making artificial arms and legs are in the works. A successful example is the "Exohand" made by Festo in Esslingen, Germany. It's a glove worn by a human that transmits gestures to a robot.

"By remotely controlling a robot's hand in industrial contexts, complex tasks – like in risky or health-endangering environments – can be carried out," says Elias Knubben, head of Festo's Bionic Learning Network.

Researchers have found, however, that unless a robot's behavior and capabilities match a humanoid appearance, it is better if they do not resemble humans too much. People get very turned off by the phenomenon experts have dubbed "Uncanny Valley" – when robots look human but do not have developed human characteristics.

No robot has ever passed the Turing test, in which humans have to guess if they are talking to a human being or a robot. Artificial conversational partners are overwhelmingly identified as such; so far robot intelligence isn't high enough to fool real people.

Real-life transformers

But robots can already act independently. There are mobile, autonomous robots in many a factory setting. Robots also monitor gas pipelines for leaks. The University of Pennsylvania's "Foam Bot" can change its form as the situation requires, running on four legs on level ground and then morphing into a snake to squeeze through crevices.

At Munich's Technical University (TU), several robots live together under one roof. Each robot can roll through the rooms, has two arms, and is independent. And they're all quick learners. "Rosie," for example, toasts bread in the toaster, butters the toast, and tops the spread off with cheese.

Meanwhile, "James' is making popcorn, putting a pot filled with grains of corn on top of the hot stove and moving it so the corn doesn't burn. James can also go shopping and arrange purchases in the kitchen cupboards. These robots will soon be able to clean up their living space and do laundry.

To aid U.S. troops in Afghanistan over 2,000 artificially intelligent robots are in use. Many of them communicate amongst themselves and coordinate their actions. Similarly, several research institutes and companies in five European countries, along with Jacobs University in Bremen, use underwater robots. An E.U. project called "Morph" is developing robots for use in dike and harbor protection as well as in ocean research. The machines are expected to be in use by 2016.

"Under water areas pose specific challenges in 3-D mapping, because you're using ultra-sound," says Andreas Birk, head of the Robotics Group at Jacobs University. According to Birk, cooperative, sensor-equipped robots are far more reliable for the job. If the robots are registered on platforms like Myrobots.com or Roboearth.org and connected to the Internet, they can upload photographs and inform researchers about what they are doing.

Man's new best friend?

But the main priority for robot use is helping humans. An E.U. flagship project called "Robot Companions for Citizens," for example, aims to develop empathetic robots that communicate as naturally as possible with people, recognize and evaluate their environment, gather experience, identify problems and find solutions and pass the solutions on in a coherent way. An international team of 140 researchers will start implementing this project in 2013.

At Stuttgart's Fraunhofer Institute, researchers have been working on the "Care-o-Bot" for years. This robot can serve drinks independently. Ultimately he should be able to carry out other household chores, like setting the table, tidying, and cleaning.

The Stuttgart robot is presently also being tested in old peoples' homes. "We're presently working on making ‘Care-o-Bot" remotely controllable. On an integrated iPad touch screen you can see where the robot is, and tell it what task to perform next, for example pick up a water bottle, or open a door," says Fraunhofer researcher Birgit Graf.

"Dream Project," on which companies like Panasonic, Hitachi and Sharp are working along with the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, aims to create fully automated robots for use in Japan's tsunami-ravaged Miyagi Prefecture. The idea is to have the robots cultivate the land, harvest grain and vegetables, and pack them into crates.

At Microsoft, meanwhile, researchers are trying to make a robot named "Grace" increasingly human. "Grace" lives in the Smart Home at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington. During the day, she watches over the house and handles whatever comes up. When residents get back from work in the evening, "Grace" reports on what happened during the day, including what e-mails came in. "Grace" also knows recipes for the ingredients of the fridge. The machine will soon be programmed to read the papers so that it can deliver a summary of the world news over dinner.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Arenamontanus

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