Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taiwan plans to build robot pandas

A CUTTING-EDGE lab in Taiwan aims to develop panda robots that are friendlier and more artistically endowed than their endangered real-life counterparts.

THE Centre for Intelligent Robots Research said its world-first panda robot was taking shape at the hands of an ambitious group of scientists hoping to add new dimensions to the island's reputation as a high-tech power.

"The panda robot will be very cute and more attracted to humans. Maybe the panda robot can be made to sing a panda song,'' the centre's 52-year-old director Jerry Lin said.

Day by day, the panda has evolved on the centre's computer screens and, if funding permitted, the robot would take its first steps by the end of the year.

"It's the first time we try to construct a quadrupedal robot," Jo Po-chia, a doctoral student who is in charge of the robot's design, said.

"We need to consider the balance problem."

The robo-panda was just one of many projects on the drawing board at the centre attached to the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.

The Taipei-based centre also aimed to build robots that looked like popular singers, so exact replicas of world stars could perform in the comfort of their fans' homes.

"It could be a Madonna robot. It will be a completely different experience from just listening to audio,'' Mr Lin said.

Mr Lin and his team were also working on educational robots that acted as private tutors for children, teaching them vocabulary or telling them stories in foreign languages.

There is an obvious target market: China, with its tens of millions of middle-class parents doting on the one child they are allowed under strict population policies.

"Asian parents are prepared to spend a lot of money to teach their children languages,'' Mr Lin said.

Robots running amok were a fixture of popular literature but parents did not have to worry about leaving their children home alone with their artificial teachers, he said.

"A robot may hit you like a car or a motorbike might hit you," he said.

"But it won't suddenly lose control and get violent. Humans lose control, not robots. It's not like that.''

Mr Lin's long-term dream was to create a fully-functioning Robot Theatre of Taiwan, with an ensemble of life-like robots able to sing, dance and entertain.

Two robotic pioneers, Thomas and Janet, appeared before an audience in Taiwan in December, performing scenes from the Phantom of the Opera, but that was just the beginning, Mr Lin said.

"You can imagine a robot shooting down balloons, like in the wild west, using two revolvers, or three, but much faster than a person," Mr Lin said.

"Some things robots can do better than humans with the aid of technologies."

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