The emergence of the robot brain

Author:  Corbaley Dean
Date:  December 2007

The first artificial mind is closer than we think: it is already here. Many researchers have built many different types of thinking machines, and none so far have come to become the thinking, feeling, song-singing machines that we might expect. But scientist have given the next generation of robot new, remarkable features, the foremost being the ability to remember and to guess. These abilities, though are present in even the most simplistic mammal, have already made improvements to the functions and performance of today's robots.

Even today we use robots in so many different functions that most of us don't recognize. Bomb squads and SWAT teams use robots for defusing bombs and reconnaissance, but these are all manually-operated and awkward. But recently, researchers have developed a new type of programming that can allow a robot to navigate its own way. The term most researchers use to describe this new robotic ability is SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), and scientists are using it to create robots with interesting capabilities all over the world.

From the laboratory to the field, robots are excelling as they map, communicate, and navigate the environments laid out before them. Alfredo Weitzenfeld, a roboticist at the ITAM technical institute in Mexico City, created a robot rat (which is actually an AIBO Sony dog rewired) that can run a maze in a similar fashion to a real rat, remembering where it was before as it searches for its programmed reward'. Durrant-Whyte of the University of Sydney and Phil Greenway of BAE Systems in Bristol, UK, built aerial drones that use video and radar images to build up a map of the terrain beneath. Four drones fly together in formation exchanging information between each other as they build their own maps of the terrain below. George Lee and colleagues at Purdue University, have created a robot that can navigate an office building, deciding whether or not to search certain areas determined on previous experience with similar looking areas.

"This approach makes sense," said Andrew Davison, SLAM researcher at Imperial College London, UK. "Rather than getting all the detailed information, they're learning static, repeating features of the environment."

To go a step further, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed a robot that could navigate through unfamiliar terrain all autonomously. The robot, named Groundhog, was equipped with a plethora of sensors to guide it in its self-guided journey through an abandoned coal mine near New Eagle in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"Groundhog has to be ultra reliable because we don't have the option of taking control of it to correct its mistakes," said Robotics Institute Systems Scientist Scott Thayer, who teaches the Mobile Robot Development class with Robotics Institute Fredkin Research Professor William L. Red Whittaker. "The key is our state-of-the-art autonomous exploration and mapping software technology. The robot creates the map, makes its own plan, explores and comes back with useful information."

A robot that can navigate itself is a very versatile tool, and they are only going to increase from here. A robot that can recognize its surroundings and adapt to them would be useful in a multitude of situations from urban disasters to battlefield applications, and someday even planetary exploration. Some scientists have hopes of a much smaller robot that could map and navigate the human circulatory system, allowing a whole new form of angiograms and angioplasty, the charting and repair of our blood vessels.

Robots have not come anywhere near the intelligence of a sentient creature, but they have come a long way from their humble beginnings. Now robots' processing capabilities can rival that of simple mammals, and the research shows no signs of slowing down. The way things are going, robots will be singing, dancing, and waxing philosophy in no time.

Written by Dean Corbaley

Published by Pooja Ghatalia.