Smart robots are coming to the masses

And if robots that can make their own decisions do not scare you, perhaps you will be spooked by the prediction that before long, teenagers will be making their own mechanical superheroes in their bedrooms.

Raymond Sheh, senior lecturer at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computing at Curtin University, forecast the trend on the back of the design for a robot that he has put on the internet, to jump-start the Open Academic Robot Kit initiative.

He has put the robot online for open-source development, a process that allows anyone to download the design, manufacture it on a 3-D printer, and then operate it using included software.

Under the increasingly popular open-source movement, every time someone improves the design, they are expected to share the new and improved versions, or new designs, with others.

Though there is always a risk with open-source projects that the design paths will fragment, there is a natural tendency for improvements to get funnelled through a few core designs.

Eventually, it leaves the world with a free design that has been refined and finessed by practitioners across the globe.

“The beautiful thing about releasing it as open-source hardware is that it is a way to get people with different speciliaties to communicate with each other, ” Dr Sheh says.

“Anyone can take this robot and improve it.

“This arm is heavier than it needs to be, so someone can lighten it, or someone can change the geometry and make it better.

“Collaborators around the world can work together.

“In order to do good intelligent machines, engineering is critical, but where it really works is where engineers talk to scientists and artists because the robots need to interact with people.”


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Before moving on to the subject of terrifyingly smart robots that can make their own decisions, what about the terrifyingly smart students who will be making them?

Dr Sheh says the technology is accessible to students because the free design can be made on a basic 3-D printer that costs only $800.

The design, which took Dr Sheh 100 hours to complete, allowed students who lacked mechanical engineering skills to short-circuit the process and provided them with a working robot design that they could customise for their own needs.

“You don’t need a lot of money — $1000 for a printer and parts can get you in the game, ” Dr Sheh says.

“Students at a high school level can play with the big boys at a very low cost.”

At this point, the arm comes with software that enables only remote control but Dr Sheh predicts that ultimately this will be combined with other open-source projects from researchers around the world to yield a cheap, smart robot arm that can “think” for itself.

He says that for some types of artificial intelligence research, off-the-shelf kits can be too simple or restrictive. His design offers a more accessible, flexible alternative.

Dr Sheh says smart robots can sense the world and make their own decisions on how to behave.

Future emergency response robots, for example, would be able to make their own decisions on how to get across a rocky area without falling over or getting stuck.

By assessing the unevenness of the terrain, the tilt of its wheels, its load and its past experience in navigating similar situations, the robot would make its own assessment on how to take each step forward.

“In the future, when a disaster happens, mechanical superheroes will swoop in and use their super sensors to detect where problems are, super artificially intelligent brains to figure out how to fix them and super capable limbs to put things right, ” Dr Sheh says.

He says there is now an opportunity to focus on getting smart robots to explain their decisions to humans, to give people confidence in their choices and help engineers learn for future designs.

“Machines need to teach humans about the decisions they make so that we can learn from them, ” Dr Sheh says.

The Open Academic Robot kit was showcased at the 2014 RoboCup in Brazil. The Atlas Humanoid Robot. 


For a more in depth look at the next generation of robots, watch The Most Awesome Robots.

© The West Australian

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