Robots are getting quite a bit smarter: Earlier today, in a mocked-up hospital room in the Netherlands, one robot taught another how to serve a patient a drink in bed. While some might see this burgeoning robotic intelligence as an early sign of the robo-apocalypse, it also might be the beginning of much greater roles for robots than their current status assembling car parts at factories or vacuuming your floor.
"We’re showing that robots are able to learn from each other, even tasks that haven’t been programmed," says Heico Sandee, one of the researchers with RoboEarth, the organization that hosted today’s demo.
RoboEarth bills itself as an "Internet for robots," and the researchers have spent the last four years building up and testing the system. "By Internet, we don’t mean millions of cat videos," another researcher said in a presentation last year. "It’s a typical Wikipedia and some web apps that allow robots to share and learn from each other’s experience."
Most current robots are programmed to perform a single task, so the robo-Internet opens up a new universe of possible robotic jobs. It also makes robots better able to deal with some of the complexity of human life.
"A system like RoboEarth will enable robots to perform complex tasks in unstructured environments such as the places where humans live and work," says René van de Molengraft, the lead researcher on the project. As objects and people move around a particular space, the robot can learn to adjust and share those lessons with other robots online.
This isn’t the only project that helps robots make use of the cloud. Since performing even a relatively simple task takes a lot of computing power—making robots both expensive and heavy—running computations online can help lower costs and make robots more agile.
"We take it one step further—not only do we have certain processes in the cloud, but we have the cloud become more intelligent," Sandee says.
In the demo this morning, an armless robot explored the fake hospital room, creating a detailed map. When the patient asked the robot for a drink, the robot pinged RoboEarth for help. Another robot showed up and learned from the system (and robot number one) how to recognize the drink by color and shape, how to pick it up, and how to get around the room without running into obstacles—all without ever having done it before.
RoboEarth is open now for robots (and people) who want to go online and use it, and the researchers say that part of the robotic community is already working to apply the system to other domains, like manufacturing.
Molengraft predicts that the tech will help bring robots into daily life soon. "Two important developments will take place," he says. "One, robotic hardware and software platforms will evolve to a level that highly capable robots will be affordable for a wide range of societal applications like health care. Two, the cognitive level of robots will greatly improve due to the re-use of available knowledge via systems like RoboEarth. The integration of these will bring robots into our everyday life in the coming decade."