Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Brisbane maps robotic future

Scientists in Brisbane are blurring the line between biology and technology and creating a new generation of robot "helpers" more in tune with human needs.

The University of Queensland is hosting the the Australian Research Council's Thinking Systems symposium this week, which brings together UQ's robotic navigation project with the University of New South Wales' robotic hands project and a speech and cognition project out of the University of Western Sydney.

Scientists are working towards a range of robotic innovations, from the development of navigation and learning robots to the construction of artificial joints and limbs and the creation of a conversational computer program, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL.

UQ's School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering head, Professor Janet Wiles, said the symposium paired "some very clever engineers...with very clever scientists" to map the future of robotics - and it was going to be a very different world.

"You're bringing together neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, behaviour and robotics information system to look at the cross disciplinary projects we can do in this space," Professor Wiles said.

"We're doing a combination of the fundamental science and the translation into the technology and that's one of the great benefits of our project."

The group aims to advance robotic technology by decoding the way human and animal brains work to equip machines with the ability to operate in the real world.

"There's a strong connection to cognition - the way the brain works as a whole - and navigation, so what we've been doing is studying the fundamental of navigation in animals and taking the algorithms we've learnt from those and putting them into robots," Professor Wiles said.

Over the next two decades, she sees robots becoming more and more important, expanding from their current roles as cleaners, assemblers and drones and into smarter machines more closely integrated with human beings in the form of replacement limbs and joints.

"It's not going to be the robots and us. Already a lot of people are incorporating robot components; people who have had a leg amputated who now have a knee and in the knee. It is effectively a fully-articulated robotic knee [with] a lot of the spring in the step that a natural knee has," Professor Wiles said.

"The ability of robots to replace component parts is an area which is going to be growing.

"This is where you're going to blur the line between technology and biology when you start to interface these two fields."

At UQ, the team is working on developing computer codes or algorithms that would enable a robot to "learn" rapidly about its near environment and navigate within it.

"Navigation is quite an intriguing skill because it is so intrinsic to what we do and we are really not aware of it unless we have a poor sense of navigation," Professor Wiles said.

"The kind of navigation we are dealing with is how you get from one place to another, right across town or from one room in a building to another you can't see."

With about four million robots in households right now, performing menial chores such as vacuuming the carpet, improvements in navigation has the potential to widen the scope of these creations to take a larger place in everyday life.

According to Professor Wiles, the ability to rapidly process information and apply it to the area they are working in will give robots the edge into the future.

"Robots need to learn new environments very rapidly and that's what a lot of our work focuses on.

"When you take a robot out of the box you don't want to program into it with the architecture of your house, you want the robot to explore the house and learn it very quickly," Professor Wiles said.

"Household robotics is going to be really big in the next 15 years or so and this is one of the things you need is for robots to be able to look after themselves in space."

But as Australian universities and international research institutes look into replicating the individual parts of biological creatures and mimic them in machines, the question of intelligence inevitably become more important.

While the sometimes frightening scenarios played out in science fiction novels and films - where so often robots lay waste to humanity - remains securely in the realm of fantasy, Professor Wiles believes that some day machines will think like us.

"There's strong AI [artificial intelligence] and weak AI. Strong AI says there will be artificially intelligent creatures which are not biological. Weak AI says they will have a lot of the algorithms and they do already have a lot of those algorithms," she said.

"The bee, whose brain is a tiny as a sesame seed, already has better navigation abilities than even our best robots.

"So we have a little way to go before robots reach biological intelligence let alone human intelligence but I don't see why we shouldn't take steps towards it."

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