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Hello Mr Robot

By Gys Muller Jun 24, 2014

Robots are awesome. Personally I don’t think this statement needs to be validated, but if you feel unconvinced, just check out videos here, here and here. Their awesomeness notwithstanding, it is still sometimes difficult interacting with them.

SCHAFT’s robot recently came first in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. This robot can do a multitude of tasks, from climbing a ladder to driving a car. This is the kind of robot who’ll rescue you when you’re trapped in a car which is on fire, underneath a collapsed bridge, in North Korea, during the zombie apocalypse.

One of the biggest issues with this type of super robot is that in order for it to know what to do, you still need a team of engineers interacting with it. If a non-technical person were to tell it what to do, terrible things would happen. This is in fact one of the biggest problems DARPA is trying to solve with the robotics challenge: enabling non-expert operators to command robots.

Honda has been working on this problem for the last 14 years. Their flagship product, Asimo, is one of the best examples of natural human interaction design in robotics. People interact with Asimo by talking and gesturing with their hands, basically doing what they would normally do when interacting with another human. Asimo does have it’s limitations, of course, and is far from being as well versed in human interaction as actual humans. Although it has played soccer with Obama. Which is pretty cool.

Even in the manufacturing industry companies experience the need for robots with whom humans can interact naturally. Baxter from Rethink Robotics is a great example of such a robot. A person interacts with Baxter directly, moving his arms to teach him what to do. This technique is perfect for training him to do boring repetitive tasks (which he was made to do). Baxter even exhibits interaction awareness by looking at you while you’re interacting with him.

Solving this problem of friendly human-robot interactions is really hard. Not so much because of to the technical intricacy of robots, but due to the complexity of what we as humans have come to expect and perceive as normal interaction.

I leave you with this TED talk from Rodney Brooks where he explaines how humans and robots are effectively working together, and why robots are necessary for a sustainable future.

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