Video: Can robots make good teammates?

September 22, 2015 by William Weir, Yale University
Video: Can robots make good teammates?

Are they our evil overlords, or our personal servants? Another possibility altogether is that they're our dependable co-workers, helping us put together that new Ikea bookcase.

At the Yale Social Robotics Lab, run by Professor of Computer Science Brian Scassellati, robots are learning the skills needed to be good teammates, allowing people to work more safely, more efficiently, and more effectively. Such skills include stabilizing parts, handing over items, organizing a workspace, or helping people use a tool better.

Some robots are perfectly capable of doing certain tasks all by themselves, and are often used in manufacturing. But their capabilities are limited, performing tasks repeatedly on assembly lines. It's extremely difficult to make a robot that does a wide variety of tasks, which is what would be necessary for use in a small business or a home.

Developing robot teammates is one route to achieving this with current technology. Not much work has been done in this area. For one thing, sharing a workspace with most robots can be dangerous.

"It's only now that this is becoming feasible, to develop robots that could safely operate near and around people," said Brad Hayes, the Ph.D. candidate who headed up the project. "We're trying to move robots away from being machines in isolation, developing them to be co-workers that amplify the strengths and abilities of each member of the team they're on."

In particular, Hayes' work focuses on robots learning "supportive behaviors", actions that make others' jobs easier to do. These behaviors require the robot to learn about tasks and teammate preferences, but do not have the same mechanical requirements of doing the entire task alone.

So how does a robot learn to be a good teammate?

"One way is autonomously—the robot tries to figure out how to help during tasks by simulating hundreds of thousands of different possibilities and then guessing if that's going to be helpful for you," Hayes says. But that can take a long time, and for certain tasks, they may never figure it out.

Another approach is to show it directly. "Here, you're naturally demonstrating to the and having it retain that knowledge," he explains. "It can then save that example and figure out if it's a good idea to generalize that skill to use in new situations."

Hayes thinks the technology has value for both the workplace and the home, particularly for small-scale, flexible manufacturing or for people who've lost some of their autonomy and could use help with the dishes or other chores.

"Collaborative robots can be deployed into these spaces, be helpful and change people's lives in a much more immediate way than waiting 20 years for us to solve some of the difficult problems associated with the robots doing some of these things all by themselves," he says.

Explore further: Robot can assess its situation and call a human for help when it needs assistance

Related Stories

Robots learn from each other on 'Wiki for robots'

January 13, 2014

Now it's not just people – robots are also connected by internet thanks to RoboEarth. Next week, after four years of research, scientists at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), Philips and four other European universities ...

Pancake-making PR2 spells teachable future in robotics

August 27, 2015

The RoboHow project has told the world what it's been up to in research at the High-Tech Systems 2015 fair and conference in the Netherlands. RoboHow is a four-year European research project that started in February 2012. ...

Dutch people not in favour of humanoid robots

July 8, 2015

Most Dutch people feel that the ideal social robot should not resemble a human being too much, as is the case with robots currently being produced in Japan. People do expect a robot to have certain human traits, but the distinction ...

Standard knowledge for robots

May 20, 2015

What do you know? There is now a world standard for capturing and conveying the knowledge that robots possess—or, to get philosophical about it, an ontology for automatons.

Recommended for you

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.