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Living with robots: Designing machines to be 'human-like'

27 Nov 2014

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To be effective, robots will have to be more than mobile sensor systems. Instead of sending a video stream back to an operator who must watch it continuously, an agricultural robot could scan fields, armed with the knowledge of what diseased plants look like. Only when it sees signs of disease would it alert a human collaborator. Having that level of sophistication will require powerful on-board computing able to sense the environment, merge and interpret data, and decide whether the information should be shared.

The robots Weiss works with are fully autonomous, no longer guided by remote pilots. Humans will continue to set mission parameters and oversee the robots, but their involvement will be much less than in the past.

Of course, allowing robots to operate on their own raises ethical questions, particularly in military domains. Just how independent can they be?

"It's like the decisions parents make with teenagers," Weiss said. "You want to give them independence, but only if they're ready for it. When you have confidence that the robot is behaving responsibly, you'll allow it to do more."

Beyond human-robot collaboration, GTRI is also helping teams of UAVs work together. One aircraft may carry a heat sensor, while another will have a video camera. The aircraft work together using their complementary capabilities to provide better information. Recently, GTRI demonstrated that three UAVs could maintain formation while flying together.

"Getting humans and robots to interact the way humans work together is an exciting challenge," said Weiss. "Traditionally, we have had humans commanding the robots and having constant oversight of them. We want to start loosening that control to let the robots do more on their own."

In Charlie Kemp's lab, a robotic arm with sensors in its skin reaches through a table covered with plants. It rustles the leaves as it moves between them, a task unthinkable for robots until recently.

Being able to touch objects, and people who need help, through such cluttered environments will be essential to personal care robots of the future.

"If you decide that the robot's arm shouldn't touch anything, which has been the standard approach, you greatly limit the robot's capabilities," said Kemp. "With these limitations, the robot couldn't reach to the back of a cluttered refrigerator or shelf. Many of the things it could have done for a person with disabilities would be out of reach."

But modern robots can learn and understand much more than earlier generations. Today's robots can know how to avoid harming people, how much force is reasonable to open a door, and how to operate amidst clutter. And research has already shown that people are comfortable with robots touching them.

Charlie Kemp and Phillip Grice with a PR2 assistance robot

Charlie Kemp and Ph.D. Student Phillip Grice with a PR2 assistance robot. (Photo: Rob Felt)

"With our intelligent control system, we have shown it can be fine for the robot's arm to make contact with people because it keeps the forces low," Kemp explained. "Humans are accustomed to touching the world. We want to give that capability to robots because it can dramatically increase their ability to provide assistance."

Over the past two years, Kemp has been working with Henry and Jane Evans to explore the bounds of personal care robots. When he was just 40 years old, Henry suffered a stroke that left him with the ability to move just his head and a finger. Among their goals for the effort: to make operating a robot simple enough for people without specialized training.

"You shouldn't need a Ph.D. in robotics to be able to program a robot to do these things," said Kemp, who also works with ALS researchers at Emory University in Atlanta. "We want to give robots more intelligence and more autonomy so they'll be easier to use and more useful."

Cost is still an issue, and will be until the price of robotic arms drops further, Kemp said. But through working with more than 200 people, one conclusion is clear:

"People are extremely excited about this technology across the board, even when they have worked with technology that isn't very polished yet," added Kemp, who has funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). "You can have great technology that could potentially help a lot of people, but if people don't choose to adopt it, it won't do much good."

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