In both the consumer and industrial worlds, scientists are working to make robots more human like. But while there are some common goals—and even similar applications—the vision can be quite different.
Hiroshi Ishiguro, professor of Intelligent Robotics Laboratories at Osaka University in Japan firmly believes interactive, human-like robotic androids will become companions to people within the next half-decade, and will be as common as smartphones are today.
“I’m curious about humans and what makes people human-like,” Ishiguro says. “I want to further understand what neuroscience can’t yet explain, such as the social aspect of humans, as well as the mind and consciousness.”
Ishiguro has already developed some very human-like robots that are now part of a permanent exhibit at Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. These life-size androids have silicon skin and artificial muscles and they can speak, move body parts (such as eyes, lips, and heads), and be easily mistaken for humans.
To further this area of study, Ishiguro was recently awarded a $16 million five-year grant from the Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) to study symbiotic human-robot interaction. “This project is aimed at discovering human intention and desire,” Ishiguro says. “Five years is not enough time to accomplish all this, but I want to gain a better understanding of human consciousness.”
Through different avenues of engineering, cognitive science, and neuroscience, Ishiguro hopes to explore various modalities of human expression and bring them to androids so they can be accepted as interactive partners.
Ishiguro’s research will focus on human communication (such as language, motion, gestures, facial expression, gaze, and touch), along with the concepts of desire and intention, to build a hierarchical model of action and speech. Practical applications of these human qualities in robots can range from support for people with developmental disabilities, support for the elderly, and education for people of all ages.
But such a robot may be too close to uncanny valley (the “technical” term for when humans feel angst when around robots that look too much like them) for those in the industrial world.
Eric Foellmer is the manager of product marketing and marketing communications at Rethink Robotics, the home of Baxter, an adaptive collaborative manufacturing robot. Baxter is a humanoid robot that broke the barriers of traditional industrial robots, which need to be caged off to protect humans from their repetitive “nothing-gets-in-its-way” motions. With those robots, manufacturing floors needed to be designed specifically to accommodate their large footprints.
Baxter, however, is close to the size of a human, and designed to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people, in the same work workspace that a human would occupy. No redesign of the manufacturing floor is required – Baxter is just wheeled right up.
Beside its size, another human-like characteristic is Baxter’s face, which is a screen with eyes on it. Foellmer says that the company wants to help people adapt more easily to having a robot working next to them. “We don’t want them to be intimidated, so we gave Baxter a friendlier appearance, so people look forward to working beside it,” Foellmer says.
Baxter has cameras, sensors, and sophisticated software that enable it to see objects, feel forces, and perform tasks with great dexterity, such as making a cup of coffee. However, that’s about as human as Baxter may get, as the company does not want to cross that line of creepiness with robots.
“We still want Baxter to be viewed as technology, or a tool,” Foellmer says. “We want to continually improve its human-like work capabilities, but it’s very difficult to replicate human traits like cognitive understanding or feedback from senses.” Foellmer says that the intention of Baxter is to perform manual labor tasks so humans can use the brain power and dexterity that can’t yet be achieved in robots.
Baxter will continue to get software improvements to give it more speed, precision, and versatility. “Typically, with robots, improvements are hardware driven, but with Baxter, it’s all through the software,” notes Foellmer.
And while Baxter is primarily used for manufacturing purposes, its cost-effective platform could have other applications as well. Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are using Baxter as an assistive device for paraplegics and other disabled people. Their goal is to have Baxter pick up and move things around through a device that can be controlled by a person’s breath.
Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
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