RoboThespian by Engineered Arts Limited, at a conference at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Oct. 16, 2013. The life-size humanoid robot is fully interactive, multilingual, and designed for human interaction in a public environment, and is part of a major trend in robotics that envisions machines as companions, rather than replacements, for humans.

David Walter Banks/The New York Times,

The Five Finger Hand, a robotics component built by Schunk, at a conference at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Oct. 16, 2013. Designed to help robots interact with a human-scale world of door handles and elevator buttons, Schunk's robots are representative of a trend in robotics that envisions machines as helpers alongside, rather than replacements for, human workers. (David Walter Banks/The New York Times)

Feed Loader,

NAO is versatile enough to help research labs, play soccer or even respond to a kiss.

Photos by David Walter Banks • NYT,

Making robots more like humans

  • Article by: JOHN MARKOFF
  • New York Times
  • November 2, 2013 - 5:12 PM


One morning, Natanel Dukan walked into the Paris offices of French robot maker Aldebaran and noticed one of the company’s humanoid NAO robots sitting on a chair. Dukan, an electrical engineer, could not resist. Bending over, he kissed the robot on the cheek. In response, the NAO tilted its head, touched his cheek and let out a smack.

It is certainly a very French application for a robot, but the intimate gesture by the $16,000, 2-foot robot, now being used in academic research labs and robotic soccer leagues, also reflects a significant shift. Until recently, most robots were separated from humans. They have largely been used in factories to perform repetitive tasks that required speed, precision and force.

But the industrial era of robotics is over. More and more, they are beginning to imitate — and look like — humans. And they are beginning to perform tasks as humans do, too. Many of the new generation of robots are tele-operated from a distance, but are increasingly doing tasks independent of direct human control. For instance, Romeo, a 5-foot humanoid robot, will soon be introduced by Aldebaran as a “big brother” to the kissing NAO robot. Created with the help of $13.8 million from the French government, the robot is being programmed to care for older people and assist in the home.

To provide useful assistance, it will have to do more than the repetitive work being performed by commercial robots in factories, hospitals and other settings. Moreover, the new robots are designed not just to replace but to collaborate with humans.

The idea that robots will be partners of humans, rather than stand-ins or servants, is now driving research at universities and industrial laboratories. This year, new U.S. industry standards for robotic manufacturing systems were published, underscoring the emergence of the field. The standards specify performance requirements that will permit human workers to collaborate with robots directly, and they reverse manufacturing guidelines from 1999 that prohibited “continuous attended operations” requiring humans to be in close contact with robots that were deemed unsafe by the industry.

Robot designers believe their creations will become therapists, caregivers, guides and security guards, and will ultimately perform virtually any form of human labor. The key to this advance is the new robots’ form. Roboticists say they are choosing the human form for both social and technical reasons. Robots that operate indoors, in particular, must be able to navigate a world full of handles, switches, levers and doors that have been designed for humans.

Roboticists also point out that humans have an affinity for their own shape. Creating robots in humanoid form also simplifies training and partnerships in the workplace, and increases their potential in new applications like caregiving. “This is the wave that’s happening in robotics right now,” said Charlie Kemp, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “Things are not the same when you’re interacting with people. That’s where we want robots to be; it’s where we see there are huge opportunities for robots; and there are very distinct requirements from what led to the classic industrial robot.”

At Carnegie Mellon University, Manuela Veloso, a professor of computer science, has developed a series of mobile robots she calls CoBots to perform tasks like delivering mail, guiding visitors to appointments and fetching coffee. She calls it “symbiotic autonomy,” since the robots also rely on humans. For example, If they get lost, they stop, call up a map of the building, interrupt a passing human and say, “I am lost, can you tell me where I am?” Veloso said, “The robotics community calls the idea cheating, but it’s not. It’s the secret to real autonomy.”


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