June 25, 2011 in Business

ROBOTS AND CO-BOTS

Obama visit focuses on jobs creation
Kevin Begos Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

President Barack Obama stands in front of a robot as he makes remarks during a visit to Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

PITTSBURGH – Need help defusing a bomb, mowing a lawn or scraping old paint?

President Barack Obama saw robots that can do those tasks on Friday when he visited the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s one of eight research centers at the school’s Robotics Institute.

The institute has been a global force in robotics development over the last 30 years. Its scientists have created robot vehicles to scout out war zones, medical robots, entertainment robots and even the SnackBot, which ferries snacks to people so scientists can study how humans respond to machines.

After touring the facility Friday, Obama joked that “one of my responsibilities as commander in chief is to keep an eye on robots.”

But Obama’s main theme was that advanced manufacturing has the potential to fuel job growth. He called for a joint effort by industry, universities and the federal government to help reposition the United States as a leader in cutting-edge manufacturing.

With growing interest from the military, businesses and consumers, the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute has more than 500 technical experts and a $65 million annual budget. And its scientists aren’t just asking questions – they’re building robots that ask questions, too.

Institute director Matthew Mason told the Associated Press that in the early days of robotics research the vision was for machines to do the dull, dirty or dangerous jobs that humans shun.

“But now we think not so much of a robot instead of a person, but of robotic technology working with people,” Mason said. That could mean helping the elderly or sick cope with basic household tasks, or helping a doctor perform surgery.

For Manuela Veloso, a scientist at the institute, a key step was building robots that are aware they don’t have all the answers.

“They know the bounds of their ability. If they are not confident, they stop,” and then ask a human a question, she said.

Veloso now has two of the new designs – called co-bots for collaboration – and like humans who gossip about the best path to success at work, the co-bots compare notes.

“The two robots exchange information when they learn about the humans, and they negotiate who should go where among the two of them,” said Veloso, who is also president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

She now sees robots – and artificial intelligence – in a completely new way.

“Forget about these robots knowing it all,” she said. “I suddenly realized that intelligence was not about what you know. It was actually about knowing what you don’t know.”

Her next project is training the robots to go to the Internet for answers when humans can’t provide them.

“I have a big vision of where we are going,” Veloso said of her robots. “They know what they can do and what they cannot do. That’s very beautiful.”

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