Handing a human a bottle of water is a task for experienced robots. Image via Eindhoven University of Technology
This week, a European team is set to present an online platform that will act as a knowledge-sharing base for robots—a robo-Wikipedia, if you will.
Called RoboEarth, the project is intended to allow robots to share experience so they can learn from each other, with the aim of improving their interaction with humans. It works by robots (or humans) uploading information—like a map, image, or instructions for doing a task—to a cloud-based database in a machine-readable format that other robots can understand. Basically, the robots will all soon be reading each other’s minds.
“At its core, RoboEarth is a World Wide Web for robots: a giant network and database repository where robots can share information and learn from each other about their behavior and their environment,” the initiative’s website explains. It’s run by six European institutes, including Philips, the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (where the project will be unveiled on Thursday), and four other universities, and is funded by the European Commission.
The showcase of the project, which has been in development for four years, will involve four robots using RoboEarth in a hospital scenario. “These robots will use RoboEarth as a knowledge base, communication medium, and computational resource to offload some of their heavy computation,” the team promises.
A hospital-like setting is an ideal test for the project, because where RoboEarth could come in handy is in helping out humans with household tasks. A big problem for robots at the moment is that human environments tend to change a lot, whereas robots are limited to the very specific movements and tasks they've been programmed to do.
“To enable robots to successfully lend a mechanical helping hand, they need to be able to deal flexibly with new situations and conditions,” explains a post by the University of Eindhoven. “For example you can teach a robot to bring you a cup of coffee in the living room, but if some of the chairs have been moved the robot won’t be able to find you any longer. Or it may get confused if you’ve just bought a different set of coffee cups.”
But with a shared knowledge base, the robots could learn this kind of information from each other and constantly stay updated. In a hospital example, the researchers suggest one robot could upload a map to RoboEarth (after using a sensors to scan the room, for instance) so that another could identify something like a glass of water immediately, even if it’s the first time it's set foot in the room. Or one robot could share its knowledge of conducting a task like opening a bottle of pills with all the others, so that each robot didn’t have to be individually programmed to do that. As the researchers ask on their site, “Why are thousands of systems solving the same essential problems over and over again anyway?”
A rather cute video from earlier in the project, demonstrating the RoboEarth cloud engine (also known as Rapyuta). Video via Youtube/Gajamohan Mohanarajah
And of course, it wouldn’t just be limited to robots working explicitly together. The Wikipedia-like knowledge base is more like an internet for machines, connecting lonely robots across the globe. The rather quaint video above from an earlier stage in the project shows how Robbie the breakfast-making robot, who used to be “intimidated by all the different breakfast foods” could learn how best to grab them thanks to experiences shared on the RoboEarth database, rather than struggling over five hours to get to grips with never-before-seen objects.
Additionally, as the robots using RoboEarth are all linked up to the cloud system, computing tasks could be carried out by the cloud engine rather than by one specific machine—“so the robot doesn’t need to have as much computing or battery power on‑board,” explained project leader René van de Molengraft. That means they could be less heavy and less expensive without compromising their abilities.
The project, and its demonstration this week, is intended to be a proof of concept—but the researchers hope it will be lead to “standardization, common language protocols and a more modular design of cloud robotics systems,” so the robots of the future can all get connected.
The only question now is, how long until robots get their own dating sites?