Friday, 18 Sep, 2009 Technology
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Latest Invention: System That Allows Robots to Ask Humans for Help

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Researchers from Willow Garage, a robotics company from Palo Alto, California, are currently working on their latest invention - a system that would train a robot to ask for help. Asking for help might be easy for humans, but it is one of the most difficult tasks in artificial intelligence.

Scientists look forward to make it possible for a robot to ask humans to help it identify some objects that the machine cannot recognize. If the project proves to be successful, it might be a great step towards developing robots that could operate autonomously and navigate safely across different types of buildings, interacting with various objects. Although computers are able to recognize certain objects, the task gets difficult when there's not enough illumination or the angle is not appropriate.

The problem with recognizing objects occurred at Willow Garage when researchers were developing the Personal Robot 2 (PR2). Together with the team from Willow Garage, Alex Sorokin from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign came up with an idea of creating a system that could allow PR2 to ask for help from humans when it cannot identify certain objects. His latest invention takes advantage of Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that connects workers and employers that have to accomplish simple tasks.

Here's how the system works in PR2: the robot takes a picture of the objects it is unable to recognize and conveys it to Mechanical Turk. Then workers use the software developed by Sorokin to draw an outline around the object in the photo and give it a name. Each processed image is charged between 3 and 15 cents, reports NewScientist. During the first tests, researchers analyzed the abilities of PR2 to move around the company's offices, taking pictures of unidentified objects and sending them every few seconds to be processed and several minutes later the robot received the pictures.

According to Sorokin, his latest invention will allow robots to gain knowledge of new surroundings. New types of robots will be able to perform a variety of tasks, for example a cleaning robot could analyze a building first, taking images and asking people to process them to help the machine build up a model of the environment and its objects. Practically this means that robots will soon be able to operate for long periods of time without human intervention.

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