Your robot helper is on the way now it can learn from its friends

Jan 20, 2014 by Nick Hawes, The Conversation
I’ll be right with you sir, just after I put this cup away. This is a cup, right? Credit: garrettc

January is a time when many of us seek to better ourselves. We want to learn a new skill or improve an existing one. A network designed especially for robots, RoboEarth, is being tested in the Netherlands to help them with their attempts at self-improvement. Soon our mechanical friends will be able to swap tips on how to best care for us and learn about their worlds.

As demonstrated by Google's recent purchase of robotics companies and Amazon's automated warehouses, intelligent, autonomous service robots are starting to look commercially viable.

Service robots are machines which can perform tasks with or for humans in normal environments (rather than in controlled factory settings). Intelligent, autonomous service robots have some freedom about how they complete tasks and need to make decisions about how to act based on what they know and can sense.

There are robots that can make sandwiches, find objects in your home, do your washing and even assemble Ikea furniture.

Learning from scratch every time

When building systems such as these, one of the major bottlenecks is providing the robot with the knowledge about the world it needs in order to perform its task. This knowledge is usually centred around the objects involved in a task: what they look like, how they can be picked up or where they can be found. Knowledge about space (maps of buildings and rooms) and action (how to change the world to achieve a particular end) is usually essential too.

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But robots have no built-in knowledge about these kinds of things. Everything they need to know must be engineered into their software somehow, such as by using machine learning techniques then connecting the results of this training to symbols within the robot's software to allow it to refer to the things in the world.

This knowledge engineering typically takes a huge amount of time for even a simple task and is usually limited in that the robot only ends up knowing about exactly the things you've taught it. For example, it might be able to recognise a box of Cornflakes, but not a box of Frosties, or perhaps not even a box of Cornflakes with different packaging.

This means that it is very difficult to just send a robot into a new environment, or ask it to perform a new task, without having a team of experts on hand to do this training. No-one can afford to ship a computer science PhD graduate with every robot so researchers around the world are looking at how robots can be equipped to quickly learn about a new environment when they are put in one.

Learning from robot friends

RoboEarth – a collaboration between universities and Philips – has developed an approach to this based on the ability to share knowledge over the internet.

The system has been likened to a social network or a Wikipedia for robots as it allows the knowledge created for one robot to be shared with another robot, anywhere else in the world, via a shared, web-accessible database. When one robot in Germany learns what a toaster is and how it works, it can upload that information into the network. A robot in Japan which has never used a toaster before can then log in and learn how to recognise one.

To enable robots with different bodies and sensors to learn from each other, RoboEarth has an abstraction layer which allows shared information to assume common capabilities across all platforms. This is much like how a desktop operating system like Windows allows the same software to run on many different types of computers.

To allow robots to easily find the knowledge they require, the contents of the RoboEarth database are structured via an ontology. This describes each entry using logic which can be queried automatically and relates connected entries. So an oven will be listed as a type of household appliance and a mars bar as a type of food.

The RoboEarth demonstration is just the start of what will become an increasing trend of intelligent, autonomous machines sharing knowledge over the internet. While there are limitations to the current demonstrators, in terms of how well shared knowledge transfers across different systems and environments, we can expect this field to progress as robots begin to hit the market. The commercial need for robots to be able to learn from their peers will drive progress.

In the future it is easy to imagine both the current open protocols of RoboEarth educating robots worldwide, as well as a commercial alternative, like an app store, where robots and their owners can buy professionally engineered knowledge off the shelf. This will be a significant step towards the day when your morning orange juice or coffee will be brought by a helper, or at least a step towards helping it to tell the difference between the two.

Explore further: Robots learn from each other on 'Wiki for robots'

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User comments : 8

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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Jan 20, 2014
The idea has been around for a while and it's pretty exciting...with a caveat:
Is the RoboEarth database sanitzed? Otherwise I'd not wonder what would happen if someone were to replace a simple instruction every robot downloads with something malicious. (And I guess our enemies at the NSA would love to spike some of the instructions with a "observe and report" function)

No-one can afford to ship a computer science PhD graduate with every robot

Seeing as PhD students are not paid well that might actually be viable. Certainly they cost far less than the robot.
Shakescene21
2 / 5 (2) Jan 20, 2014
@antialias -- I am sure that hackers will be able to hack robots, just as they now hack computers and "smart" refrigerators. And it will be up individuals and governments to try to prevent malicious hackers from misusing robots or even turning them against us.

I also am sure that our dedicated analysts at NSA will do what they can to prevent terrorists from using robots to murder and hurt Americans.
Shakescene21
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 20, 2014
These service robots are improving so rapidly that they will be massively replacing human service workers very soon. Even a minimum-wage worker will be more expensive than these service robots. And robots don't need Social Security, health insurance, or holidays. Robots don't quit, go on strike, or sue you over working conditions. If I were an employer I would probably rather have robots working for me than humans.

We need to work out a welfare system for the millions of people who just aren't worth the minimum wage. Perhaps it would be financed by a "Robot Tax" which would be comparable to income taxes that workers pay.

dpaxton
5 / 5 (2) Jan 20, 2014
I am still waiting for the sex/maid/cook robot. I thought when I was a kid that they would be out by now. I do know that would cause a number of changes in society. But good for single guys. Birth rates would plummet. No more over population. Superb gourmet cooking and generally happy and productive men. However the growing rise of the luddite lesbian gangs might cause a problem. I am sure the robot factory bombings can be helped with better psychotherapy.
wriver47
5 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2014
Rise of the Swarm!
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jan 20, 2014
No-one can afford to ship a computer science PhD graduate with every robot
Seeing as PhD students are not paid well that might actually be viable. Certainly they cost far less than the robot.

They're then called "interns".
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jan 20, 2014
I am still waiting for the sex/maid/cook robot. I thought when I was a kid that they would be out by now. I do know that would cause a number of changes in society. But good for single guys. Birth rates would plummet. No more over population. Superb gourmet cooking and generally happy and productive men. However the growing rise of the luddite lesbian gangs might cause a problem. I am sure the robot factory bombings can be helped with better psychotherapy.

Oh, yeah! Cherry 2000!
Sean_W
not rated yet Jan 20, 2014
These service robots are improving so rapidly that they will be massively replacing human service workers very soon. Even a minimum-wage worker will be more expensive than these service robots.


The thing is, there are all sorts of relatively cheap, powerful and well designed office technologies on the market which could rapidly improve productivity but huge swaths of the public and private sector (small-scale and large-scale alike) have fancy flat screens running modern-looking interfaces but running DOS software--sometimes on Virtual PC because the old software can't run on the modern machines. Legacy issues are not confined to one location but spread across supply chains. Pharmacy chains, drug suppliers and third insurance companies all need to function together. Having multiple industries and agencies making changes in concert while not suspending service is like herding gnats.

An ideal system which requires agony to implement will not be implemented for a long time.