Rescue robots, waitrons convene for contest

“Would you like something to eat?” asks the diminutive waiter, balancing a tray of small sandwiches atop its cylindrical metal body.

Welcome to the future. This is a party with a twist: All the waiters are robots. And it’s one of the robotics competitions occurring in Seattle at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AI) this week.

The conference, which has drawn about 2600 researchers from around the world, is the premier gathering of the AI elite. It occurs every four years and, when in North America, meets jointly with the American Association for Artificial Intelligence.

True to its name, the AI event is not limited to robotics. Scholarly papers are being presented on all aspects of AI research, including natural language processing, speech recognition, neural networks, machine learning, intelligent agents, and decision theory. But it’s the robots that grab the attention.

Many of the robotic events are part of the annual RoboCup-2001 competition.

One involves teams of robots about the size of a small vacuum cleaner that play soccer without direct human interaction. The competition’s purpose is to stimulate interest for and research into AI and robotics.

Sports and service

A RoboCup-2001 highlight is a contest among nearly 50 teams of middle – and – high school students. Their small robots are generally about the size of a child’s toy and compete by playing Botball. This game requires robots to perform complex maneuvers that involve placing small black and white balls in scoring positions on a four-by-eight-foot playing area. The junior league teams compete using LEGO Mindstorm kit robots.

Elsewhere at the exhibition, teams compete using software they’ve written to control Sony Aibo robotic dogs in a game of soccer. Using standardized robots tests the teams’ abilities to design innovative behaviors that perform tasks without human intervention.

Not all of the competitions are fun and games. In Robot Rescue, the robots must successfully negotiate through three courses designed to simulate the hazards you might find in a collapsed building after an earthquake. The robots are charged with locating survivors and reporting back to human rescuers about their locations, as well as the obstacles to their rescue. In this competition, team members can use autonomous robots or employ varying levels of remote control, but the robots must find their own way through obstacles inherent to collapsed structures, such as stairs or debris.

“We chose the robot search-and-rescue model because it’s a very real-world effort,” says Adam Jacoff, a mechanical engineer with the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the U.S. National Bureau of Standards) Intelligent Systems Division. The organization, which has long researched automation and robotics, designed the test areas for Robot Rescue.

Metallic waitrons

As for the hors d’oeuvres competition, programmers were encouraged to think of innovative ways for robots to detect a person’s presence and then serve them, with an emphasis on the human/robot user interface. The challenge was helping the robots autonomously negotiate a crowd of human partiers.

One robot detected the difference between humans and inanimate objects such as tables by using an infrared scanner to watch the ground. When it found shoes containing feet – identified by body heat – it used its voice synthesis and recognition system to offer the human a treat.

Will we see such robots in our daily lives anytime soon? Probably not, but among the competitions’ leading sponsors are the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA has a reputation for supporting technological advances that go mainstream: This agency originally funded the government research network that eventually evolved into the Internet and the World Wide Web. So although robots may not wait on us in the next five to ten years, it may not turn out to be all science fiction either.

“Canapes, anyone?”