Mermaids, zombies and robots oh my! Make sure they don’t contribute to the 2012 doomsday

Making robotic history: Learning words, feeling textures and personal assistants

By Amanda Shore

While believing in fairy tale stories like mermaids and zombies can be fun, something even more exciting from stories that we love is becoming a reality. Robots.

While robots have been around for some time, advances in technology have transformed them like never before. Scientists at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering have created a robot finger that is better than humans at feeling texture. At the University of Hertfordshire, a robot baby has been learning to speak. Willow Garage, a robot company in California, has built the PR2 robot, a personal assistant. With this new technology, we are closer to building fully-automated robots and even understanding how humans operate.

BioTac, the robotic finger, is supposed to imitate the way that a human finger would feel motion, temperature and identify over 117 different materials. The finger has a soft, flexible skin with a thin, liquid layer between that and a bone-like core. Since it is anatomically similar to a real human finger, BioTac could be used in artificial limbs. It even has its own fingerprints.

BioTac works because the “skin” vibrates when it touches something. These vibrations are picked up by a hydrophone in the liquid layer. By processing the data from the hydrophone, BioTac can tell which direction it is moving and what material it is touching with a rate of 95 percent accuracy.

DeeChee, a robot baby designed on the open source iCub platform, is astounding scientists with its ability to learn how to speak. It has successfully learned how to say the word “green” and is working on “blue.” By studying this robot, scientists are able to further understand how human babies learn to speak. It was made to look like a human child because there is a theory that the appearance of robots affect how people interact with them. Another reason is that the robot’s own perceptions and development depend on its humanoid form, according to the embodied cognition hypothesis.

The robotic baby was programmed with a learning algorithm and basic sounds. It went through intensive language training and tests. The researchers stated, “The advent of humanoid robots has enabled a new approach to investigating the acquisition of language, and we report on the development of robots able to acquire rudimentary linguistic skills … In our experiments some salient one-syllable word forms are learnt by a humanoid robot in real-time interactions with naive participants. Words emerge from random syllabic babble through a learning process based on a dialogue between the robot and the human participant, whose speech is perceived by the robot as a stream of phonemes.” The robot learns through repetition and interaction.

The personal assistant robot, PR2 has been programmed to fold towels, fetch drinks, and assist the elderly and disabled. Eleven of these robots have been given away to research institutions. While it is worth $400,000, it isn’t yet ready to be put on the shelves. It takes too long to perform its assigned tasks. It took almost 30 minutes to fold a single towel in 2010, but researchers have been able to lessen the time to six minutes. Still, that’s a lot slower than a human could do it. The PR2 is more for experimentation for future models of robotic personal assistants.

Some may argue that we shouldn’t develop robot technology too much because they could take over the world. This is something else from science fiction. While I’m not saying that it can’t happen, I don’t think that it’s very likely. If it does happen, it certainly won’t be in time for the alleged 2012 doomsday prophesy.

Different kinds of robots have helped humans for years. The self-propelled vacuums are probably the most widely accepted. Robotic prosthetics can help people that have been badly injured regain their mobility and life. Other technology, like being able to link a paralyzed person’s brain to a computer so that they can talk or write, is practically a miracle. When new technology can help people that much, we should accept it, not condemn it.

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