The future of robotics
Emptying the dishwasher or getting the apple juice out of the fridge – robots are already capable of performing smaller everyday tasks. But research is going much, much further. Will we someday become one with robots?
Science fiction becomes reality
Terminator, C-3PO and WallE – what only existed in the movies a few years ago has long been more than just a vision. Throughout the world, scientists are carrying out research into robots that can help our society in a wide variety of ways. And they are being modelled primarily on human beings themselves. “There is currently no other morphology which would be better suited for a robot that is to perform a wide range of tasks in human-centred environments than the human body,” explained Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour. He is head of the “High Performance Humanoid Technologies” Chair at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). Together with his research group, he has created the humanoid robot ARMAR. His inspiration comes not only from biology but also from science fiction.
Learning from experience
ARMAR is based on highly advanced research. “The systems are already capable of performing sub-functions,” Asfour explained. For example, the robots can do simple fetching and carrying tasks, including everyday jobs such as clearing the table and getting apple juice out of the fridge. The robot learns continuously and therefore develops artificial intelligence.
One important area of research is interaction on the basis of speech: ARMAR can receive and execute voice commands and even interact with people. If it has not yet learnt something then it communicates this too. When it is shown a task it imitates the action and stores it to be used for similar activities in the future. If a table is dirty and ARMAR receives the command “wipe” it knows that it has to clean it. As it remembers what it has learnt in abstract form it can also use the “wipe” action in other situations. “Our aim is to make it possible for robots to coexist and communicate with humans,” Asfour commented. However, he also explained that researchers are still a long way away from an autonomous robot.
Wide area of research
The scientific approaches and the main research areas differ significantly within the field of robotics. While Asfour and his team at KIT are aiming to make considerable progress in the areas of motor function, interaction and developing artificial intelligence, Japanese scientists are way ahead in the context of dynamic walking. There are significant differences in connection with walking on two legs in particular. The Americans, however, are leading the way in the area of humanoid robotics in space. For example, NASA is working on sending robots instead of people to space stations in the near future.
Furthermore, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the United States Department of Defense, is carrying out research into robots that can assist soldiers in a war and transport very heavy loads. The scientific approaches not only differ in terms of technology; there are also various opinions concerning people’s acceptance of robots. One theory is that the greater the similarity is between robots and humans, the more they will be accepted by society. However, some people also have the opposite opinion – that a robot must be different from a person in order to be accepted.
A second skin
The idea of creating a robot that you can wear takes it one step further. Asfour has a clear idea of how the interface between the person and the machine should be achieved: “My vision is to create a suit that acts like a second skin and thus enhances the sensory and motor skills of the human being. I would like to use the best control system that has ever been created – i.e. the human brain and our body dynamics – to control the systems.”
There would be a wide variety of applications. On the one hand, elderly people or people with physical limitations could compensate for their weaknesses with the aid of technologies such as this. On the other hand, people could also benefit from totally new skills. In the event of a disaster like Fukushima, the suit could protect its wearer from radioactive radiation, and in normal situations it could improve physical capabilities. Asfour lets his thoughts wander into the future: “When I am 80 years old I would like to be able to win a tennis match against the number one in the world – with the help of a suit like this.”
Photos: © Karlsruhr Institut of Technology