Roboy – one of the most humanoid robots on earthHow a cute robot will help us conquer our fear of robots
Robots will soon take over the world, though they are not (yet) really practically useful in our day-to-day lives as they tend to be too fragile. It is high time to clear up these prejudices. May we introduce RoboyJunior, a robot not only financed through crowdfunding, but also with a look the community helped define. Now the adorable RoboyJunior tours classrooms to show young people how amazing robotics can be – and the best part: he will neither break, nor lust after world domination. Read More
June 2012: The 25th anniversary of the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence in Zurich is coming up fast. In honour of this milestone, an event is planned at which the international robotics scene can showcase its humanoid robots in Zurich: Robots on Tour. As indicated by its name, the Institute also develops robots. But this close to the anniversary, the institute has no robot to represent its latest findings – and only 9 months in which to develop one. Too little time to apply for a research grant. The development team decides to turn to the public and starts a crowdfunding campaign: to attract participants, contributor’s names will be engraved onto Roboy’s body. The community is also involved in determining how the robot will look and vote via Facebook. Roboy’s cute, child-like expression is the result. Today Roboy no longer lives in Zurich through; he has moved in with his new “father”, Rafael Hostettler, who researches and teaches at TU Munich in Germany. We spoke to Rafael about Roboy’s development and future.
Rafael, why has Roboy come to live with you?
I was still working in Berlin when Roboy was being built, so I could not be part of the project from the ground floor. When I saw him in “Robots on Tour” in March 2013, I was absolutely smitten. Roboy was not just intended to represent the Zurich researcher’s latest work; he was primarily designed as a communicator. The idea was to present him at events, exhibitions and trade fairs after the anniversary celebration, but there was no capacity in Zurich to professionally plan the kind of tour that was needed – and this is where I came in.
So you took him home...
Exactly at the time, there was a job opening in Munich that was perfect for Roboy. Now he is here and I am working not only on driving the Roboy project forward, but also raising its profile. He now has his own homepage and social media channels, and is starring in his own tour.
What is so special about Roboy?
First of all, he looks adorable. Roboy can show emotions and was built using different construction paradigms from “normal” robots. They are designed to be very precise and move with the corresponding accuracy – which makes them very stiff. Roboy was created to mimic human movement patterns. We humans do not move around precisely at all – our sensory system never functions the same way twice – so the way he moves is very different.
So does that mean the other humanoid robots are not really humanoid?
Humanoid primarily refers to the way they look. You might say that the movement patterns we gave Roboy called “tendon-driven” gave him an additional human component. Roboy is intended to serve as the spokesrobot for this type of robot.
Speaking of human characteristics:
Roboy blushes bashfully when he receives praise. How does Roboy recognise a compliment?
That is still manually controlled. The user issues a command for this “display”: “Roboy, you are being hugged, so blush.” There are, of course, algorithms that allow robots to mimic emotions, but this is not our area of expertise. These are two separate areas in robotics: On the one hand there is the development of movement patterns inspired by the human body, and emotion recognition and replication on the other. We are working on controlling the body and its interaction with the environment and less with the social aspects.
But wouldn’t it be exciting to link them in Roboy?
In the long term, definitely! We did collaborate with company that does that kind of thing. But it turned out to be difficult to implement, so we never really pursued it to the end. But we will certainly take it back up in future.
Where and how will Roboy be used?
Roboy’s primary job is to communicate about our area of research. He is not a project you take home to do the washing up. Roboy has been designed as a means of communication – in particular to calm people’s fear of robots and show how interesting this field of research is. He was also created to show that robots can be built to be robust: you can grab him or even shake him and he won’t break.
Are "normal" robots that fragile?
Usually, yes. They are built statically so they can realize an exactly defined function very precisely, which makes them more susceptible to damage. Force directly affects their built-in motor or gearbox that can break quite easily.
What are people scared of?
Two things: Firstly, they are a bit hesitant about relating to robots. This is easy to deal with though when people interact with them and can touch them. There are also more subtle fears: Do I have to worry about a robot taking my job one day or taking over the world? There are a lot of Hollywood-inspired phantasies.
Right. But this is so far removed from reality, though it is still a very widely held belief. We want to take away these fears and show that robotics can produce things that are really useful and offer excellent opportunities. Opportunities come with some small risks, but the benefits far outweigh them.
Is it true that Roboy will one day be a helper robot? By nursing the sick or elderly, for example?
As a rule every robot is designed to help human beings in some way and do specific things. Since Roboy has been built to look so cute, he is predestined to interact with people and serve and assist them in future as well. It is still too early right now though to make any future plans for him.
What is it like to work at your institute?
We do a lot of basic research: We look, for example, at how the human muscles work together. When we have figured out how it could work, then we think about how to create an algorithm to translate the complexity of the human body for Roboy.
Is Roboy still being improved?
Yes, all the time. New legs will be finished soon and students are always working on projects that deal with smaller aspects. Roboy + Gadget is one of these initiatives and looks at how to combine new technological gadgets with Roboy. Streaming and broadcasting Roboy’s camera perspective onto a head-mounted display is one part of it: When I attach the display to my head, then move my head, Roboy’s head moves in sync with mine.
Speaking of heads – you asked the community to weigh in on the head design?
Yes we did. He had a bonier head in the first drawings. But our primary goal was to have him look friendly, kind, and not at all intimidating. We wanted Roboy to be built by and integrated into the community from the very beginning – so a survey was conducted on Facebook to ask what the head should look like (roughly at least). The community was in favour of the cute option.
You would not have fallen in love with him at first sight otherwise and he would not be on tour today. Where do you tour with Roboy?
All over the world actually, you can follow the tour dates on the homepage. We have gone to exhibitions, events and schools. We are taking a short break right now, but “Roboy at school” will start in July in Munich, Germany – we hope to awaken kids’ interest in technical majors.
What can school kids expect from the tour?
We offer a program with 4 modules:
Module 1 is robot ethics:
Should I fear robots? Will they take away my job?
Module 2 is biology:
What is similar to the human body, what is different? What can we learn from Roboy about the muscle-tendon structure of the human body?
Module 3 is technology:
How do I build a robot? What technologies are used?
Module 4 is construction:
Students get oscillating motors and use other materials to build their own robots that move in one direction. This is interesting, since as part of the process children learn that control is not the only important factor: Body design is key too. The little motor called a servo basically rotates back and forth when you put it down somewhere, but although it moves, it stays in one place. A clever design can break this symmetry so the motor actually moves in one direction. This concept is familiar from a steam-machine piston that pushes down and starts the steam machine moving. Kids learn a lot from this exercise – they have to create a well-thought out body. In the past, robotics often did not take targeted motion into account when developing the body and instead tried to control it using motors after a robot was complete.
What has feedback from kids been like so far?
Very good. That is why we extended the summer tour to two instead of just one day per school. Ultimately we plan to create a curriculum that teachers can download from our homepage and use for individual workshops.
Are students plagued by the same fears as adults?
The younger the audience, the less critical they are about technical innovations and robots in particular. This may in part be because young people are growing up in a very technical world and also because they don’t need to worry about losing their job because they don’t have one yet – just to address one pervasive fear. A person who works in a factory will feel very differently, of course, if his or her company is planning to automate their job.
Does research also look at the problem of unemployment caused my automation?
That is a topic that our political decision-makers really need to address more directly, by creating retraining programs, for example, to help people who have been made redundant. Research really only develops the technology, and that is one generation ahead of the robot technology employed by industry today.
How do you respond to such criticism?
I always ask people how many spinners and weavers they personally know. This used to be the largest commercial industry in Europe, but these jobs were destroyed by industrialization, so people adjusted. Or look at farming, for example: Just a few decades ago, farmer was one of the leading professions, but there are very few small farms still in operation today. Yet we don’t complain about underemployment.
How long will we continue to be superior to artificial intelligence?
In all likelihood more than 100 years. We have developed algorithms that are much better at pattern recognition, for example, than the human mind could ever be. But generic human skills, like recognizing connections in the overall scheme of things, that is still very far away for artificial intelligence.