GETTING A SENSE OF THINGS
R2-D2 from Star Wars arguably has more personality than many
robots twice its size, but without a face or limbs to speak of where
does it all come from? The answer, of course, is sound. UK researchers
are now trying to do the same with real robots, teaching them to
communicate information and emotions to humans using beeps, boops,
Robin Read and Tony Belpaeme from Plymouth University's Centre
for Robotics and Neural in the UK, are investigating the relationship
between things like the pitch and rhythm of sounds and their perceived
emotional connotations. Funded by the ALIZ-E Project — a European
effort to create robots that can form meaningful bonds with humans in
a hospital setting — the researchers asked several dozen six to eight year old kids to try to match sounds with expressions.
It turned out to be quite striking how the children showed strong categorical perception when interpreting the robot's
utterances. There was no subtlety in their interpretation: The robot was — in their words — either sad, happy, angry, scared,
surprised, or tired, but they seldomly interpreted utterances in more subtle emotions. It is believed that upon closer
inspection, categorical perception will be observed in other modalities also, having a significant impact on the design of HRI
[human-robot interaction] for younger children. Basically, any effort to convey subtlety might be a lost effort.
Non-verbal communication (whether or not subtlety is involved) is going to be a critical skill for human-robot interaction
in the short term, since it doesn't require any complex hardware or software to implement and it's generally language and age
independent. Roomba owners, for example, will immediately recognize their robot's "I'm charged!" tune. Communication isn't
limited to audio, either.
BETTER THAN A JUMPING BEAN
The Sand Flea had its origins in the Precision Urban Hopper
which was born from a collaboration between Sandia National Labs
and Boston Dynamics back in 2009. However, there are some
significant differences in the latest version of Sand Flea. For example,
instead of jumping while moving (like the Precision Urban Hopper
did) Sand Flea stops, rears back, and launches itself into the air:
It has no trouble clearing a 10 meter obstacle (about 30 feet),
and it's accurate enough that you can ask it to jump through a
window two stories up and it'll do it. The piston (which looks like it
fires out the back of the robot, as opposed to downwards) is
powered by CO2, and Sand Flea can make 25 jumps in a row before
it needs to juice itself up again. Sand Flea is intended to be used in
places like Afghanistan to hop over walls, take a look around, and hop
right back home again.
The tricky part is keeping Sand Flea oriented as steadily as
possible during the jump. The idea is that the robot will be able to
send back useful video while in midair, which a haphazard aerial
tumble would preclude. It looks like it does a halfway decent job, but this robot seriously needs a tail.
FOCUS ON COST REDUCTION
It seems that Canon plans to cut production costs by about ¥400 billion
(~$4.8 billion) by using robotics. The company will be utilizing robots in both their
toner department and the assembly line for SLR camera lenses. Canon hopes the
move will increase their profit margin over the next few years. Considering that the
company is already in the robot building business, it certainly sounds logical.
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