Some robots can hardly be distinguished from humans on the outside. Researchers are now working on making the interior of the humanoid machines more similar to ours. Robots receive human-like skeletons or are reprogrammed into learning beings
Long gone are the days when robots were little plastic toys that blinked their eyes and walked clumsily. After around four decades of robot research, mainly in Japan, but also in Germany, some robots have become human-sized and more human-like. Some of the humanoid beings nowadays help in the kitchen, in the nursing home or play the violin – with five fingers, of course.
One found out exactly what they can do in Karlsruhe at the end of May. There, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) and the German Society of JSPS scholarship holders organized a two-day conference on robotics. But before Japanese and German robot researchers presented their latest developments, the participants of the symposium got to know some Karlsruhe robots - during a tour of the "technology factory" there, a start-up center of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce.
Martin Do, doctoral student at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), slowly moves his arms up and down. Opposite him stands Armar 3B and imitates him. The human-sized robot learns new movements by imitating its teacher, whom it observes through cameras. The researchers' goal is to make Armar 3B's movements look as human-like as possible. In addition, the humanoid journeyman wears haptic sensors on the five fingers of his hand, with the help of which he can grasp objects.
Cucumbers and Dirty Plates
However, Armar 3A, the younger brother of 3B, is responsible for the practical demonstration. He stands in the institute kitchen and waits for new instructions. "Open the dishwasher," is the next, pronounced by Tamim Asfour from the Institute for Technical Informatics. The robot is equipped with speech recognition, in addition to English it also understands German; he perceives his surroundings via four cameras. Armar 3A slowly rolls to the dishwasher. He stretches out his right arm and wraps his fingers around the handle. Very slowly he opens the machine. "Well done," says Tamim Asfour. And since Armar 3A is a polite robot, among other things, he says "Thank you".
So the first steps towards becoming a humanoid domestic help have been taken. The robots developed by Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo also give people a hand in the kitchen: they cut cucumbers into even slices and wash dirty plates. The helpers also take care of the tiresome vacuum cleaning. Inaba and his team are currently working on making robots more human-like on the inside: Their "bones" should become even more flexible.
Wire muscles catch the recoiling drumsticks
As early as 2005, Japanese researchers brought the humanoid robot Koturo to life. In his human-like skeleton, more than 100 motors and 50 microprocessors ensure complex movement sequences. But the robotic skeleton was not up to all the challenges. It was not until 2008 that Kojiro was able to deal with variable loads that occur when drumming, for example, when the drumsticks snap back from the membrane. Now some of its 109 wire muscles catch the recoil. In addition, the humanoid beings are now also equipped with a tactile "skin" that allows them to respond to touch. A flexible plastic with 3D sensors underneath makes it possible.
Many areas of application are already planned for the robots: They should transport people, give factory workers a hand, support the nursing staff in old people's homes and provide information. This is no longer a dream of the future, because some such helpers already exist. However, we are still working intensively on the details.
Susumu Shimizu from Toyota presented the locomotion robot i-foot. The passenger sits in an egg-shaped plastic capsule that can walk on two legs. The human controls the machine with a joystick and can direct it forwards, backwards or sideways in this way. To get him in and out, i-foot kneels down.
Toyota has already put a lot of work into teaching a robot to walk on two legs. The result was also a second humanoid being, which is at least seven kilometers per hour fast. The robot stabilizes itself dynamically, so it won't fall over if you push it - at least if you don't bump into it too much. The work of Shimizu and his team also includes human-like robots that can play the violin with five fingers. It is clear that these will probably not be used seriously. But a machine that plays the violin can also pick up a cup precisely and hand it to a person in need of care, for example.
"Black?" – The robot nods
The competition doesn't sleep either. Edgar Körner from the Honda Research Institute Europe researches artificial intelligence and has already taught his robot Asimo quite a few things. The scientist shows Asimo a black cup and says the word "black" aloud a few times. Using camera eyes and plenty of electronics, Asimo processes what he sees and hears and nods when the researcher then shows him a black toy car and asks: "Black?" In this way, Körner wants to make it easier for people and robots to live together, because helpers who are capable of learning require less time from us.
Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University is known for designing what are probably the most human-like robots, called androids. He created not only an image of his daughter, but also his own. The silicone android skin, for example, is peppered with touch-sensitive sensors. Now Ishiguro wants to make the movements of his robots appear even more human-like. Software helps with this, allowing them to imitate the uncontrolled movements of babies, among other things. And Ishiguro's androids are also capable of learning. For example, you observe a person getting up from the floor and then imitate him. Their pneumatic "muscles" are already giving them human-like movements.
No rejection outright
But do we want all of that: robots that live with us and support us in everyday life? Ortwin Renn, a social scientist from the University of Stuttgart, has examined this question. His result: Germans and Japanese see the role of robots differently. While the Germans surveyed assume that robots will one day replace service workers, Japanese see robots as support in everyday life. In Japan, the development of electronic helpers is being driven forward by the government, business and the citizens, says Renn. In Germany, on the other hand, only the economy is the driving force in this area. Therefore, there is no market for humanoid robots here either, while there is a certain amount in Japan. But the demand from Germans could still grow – robots are not met with fundamental rejection in this country either, explains the social scientist.
The little plastic robot with the blinking eyes has had its day in any case. However, there is much more to do in every household than just loading the dishwasher and vacuuming. Even if robotics is becoming increasingly fascinating: Human-like machines still have to prove that they can really be useful.