Little lost robot

Robots have been mobile for decades, but they’ve only ever been able to go places for which they had a map or set of directions stored. That’s all changed thanks to a team of roboticists from Munich, who’ve built the first robot that can be unleashed into unfamiliar territory without a map. How does it complete its journey? It asks for directions, of course:

ACE uses cameras and software to detect humans nearby, based on their motion and upright posture. As it closes in on a likely helper, ACE’s “head” – bearing a touchscreen and a second screen displaying an animated mouth – turns to face the chosen person.

A speaker working in sync with the animated mouth is used to get the person’s attention and to ask them to touch the screen if they want to help. Willing guides are then asked to point the robot in the correct direction, with the response being analysed by posture recognition software. Direction set, ACE says “thank you” before trundling off.

Pointing, rather than telling the robot where to go, avoids confusion caused by the fact that the robot and the facing pedestrian each have a different sense of left and right.

Although it interacted with 38 people over a period of nearly five hours – ACE did eventually reach its destination. In fact, the team report that the robot was making very good progress until it reached a busy pedestrian area where its own popularity became a problem.

The current rarity of mobile robots in public spaces is obviously a big factor here; in a few more decades, we may barge past lost robots on the pavement as quickly and guiltily as we do homeless people or street-drunks.

The principle on display here is that of robot-human interaction in order to gather environmental data to complete a task or journey, which is all well and good, but it’s a proof-of-concept more than anything else. If all you needed was a robot that could navigate an unfamiliar cityscape, it’d be far easier to kit it out with good visual sensors and a GPS unit.

Hell knows this would be useless for military applications; if your super-killbot had to stop at every enemy checkpoint to ask the way to headquarters, I dare say the best place it would end up would be a long long way from anything at all… [story via regular commenter Evil Rocks; apologies to Paul McAuley for the headline]