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Separating science fact from science fiction in robotics

Sharon Gaudin | June 24, 2015
Humans are still better at operating robots than robots are running on their own.

Science-fiction movies often show robots freely running across the screen, either wreaking havoc or saving the world.

Many roboticists competing in the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge earlier this month said they are backing away from autonomy in order to make their robots work faster and more efficiently.

For them, less autonomy for the robot and more human control means a better shot at winning the global, multi-year competition.

An autonomous robot is able to complete tasks or behaviors without human intervention. The robots competing in the DARPA challenge were semi-autonomous, meaning they performed some tasks on their own but needed human guidance for others.

"We still have a long way to go with autonomy," Dennis Hong, leader of the UCLA team in the DARPA challenge, told Computerworld. "Originally, when DARPA launched this competition, autonomy was a huge part of it ... but many teams aren't using much autonomy [in the finals]. Autonomy is hard and they don't have the time and money to build autonomy."

Hong, whose team came in 13th out of 24 teams at the finals, said before the final competition that his team would use more human-controlled operations than autonomy.

Robots run with human operators are still faster. "This challenge pushed state-of-the-art in locomotion and humanoid robots, in general," he said. "But not really in autonomy."

Scientists are not even close to building a robot that can do laundry or make dinner. Robots today are also not at the point where they can rush into burning buildings, shut off systems and rescue victims, although that's where DARPA sees the technology going in another 10 or 15 years.

That being said, robotics, and autonomy, are far more advanced than they were just a year and a half ago.

At the Robotics Challenge Trials in December 2013, the machines were tethered to their human controllers, who directed the robots on such a granular level that they had to instruct them to move a hand ahead 2.5 inches, move the shoulder, turn the torso and then turn the wrist to a certain point and close the fingers around a door knob.

Today, most of the scientists at the robotics finals could use computerized commands via Wi-Fi to make the robot walk to a door and open it.

The robots are able to generally balance on their own, walk forward, grasp tools, and turn valves and knobs.

In terms of autonomy, it's a huge advance.

It's just not the advance that people, who get most of their perceptions about robotics from movies and television shows, have been expecting.

"Our team's focus was to not maximize autonomy but to maximize the utility of having a human-robot team," said Taskin Padir, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which, working with Carnegie Mellon University, placed seventh in the DARPA challenge. "Autonomy is still hard. It takes time if it's easier for the human to help the robot with tasks, we do that."


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