The Final Word on ICRA 2012: 'What is a human?' Please define, and we will make a copy.'

June 14, 2012

Visualising things and images always leaves a stronger impression than a thousand words, therefore we move forward with more videos and pictures presenting various robot skills showcased at ICRA 12. One that attracted both the attention of the attendees and tech media that reported on it quite enthusiastically shows a robot juggling two balls, like a real little circus artist. To a lay reader, such a repetitive robotic movement might not sound extraordinary, but if clarified that the dexterous hand-arm systems do not mimic the juggling behaviour but track the balls while in the air and a series of calculation regarding the automated movement are carried out by the systems, well that is a great engineered robot-arm. Even if it comes with a few imperfections concerning the number of successful juggling cycles and throwing instability, the future of the robotic jugglers looks bright as researchers from Chiba University, Japan, have only started to play the circus games.

Now, if there is one thing that can be left out of this article, that is any kind of introduction to DARPA as no professional in the field or robotics admirer cannot browse any online news without reading about the latest DARPA accomplishments. Therefore, long story short, what DARPA came armed with at ICRA12 was their ARM (multi-track Autonomous Robotic Manipulation). The ARM literally enables a robot to "autonomously manipulate, grasp, and perform complicated tasks with humans providing only high-level supervision" as stated on its official web-site. So without further ado, rather than describing ARM's capabilities, we leave the below embedded videos to do it for us.

Moving from one governmental giant to the next, our robotic storytelling spaceship lands on NASA's ground. Once out the ship there to greet us we find the Robonaut, NASA's astronaut robot, "one of the strongest and most dexterous humanoid robots ever built," as reported by IEEE's Erico Guizzo to have been stated BY NASA's people. The Robonaut 2 presented at ICRA, the second version of the original robonaut, designed by Johnson Space Center and General Motors, is mostly special for its slender movements and safety features, including an impedance controller preventing any possible damage to objects or, well, living beings. As for its job description at NASA, Robonaut assists the crew, for example, by measuring air flow, and soon to take over some maintenance tasks too.

Another star of the Show Floor was the already well-known and recognisable DARwin-OP (Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence-Open Platform), a tiny humanoid with advanced computational capabilities, sensors and dynamic motion abilities. Being DARwin-OP's main scope to help researchers advance robots' abilities in the areas of artificial intelligence, humanoid, gait algorithm, mobility, and linguistics among other, ICRA organised the DARwin-OP Humanoid Application Chllenge with the objective to "encourage creative applications from around the globe and maximize contribution for humanoid research." The winner of the humanoid challenge was a team from the University of Manitoba, Canada, who’s hockey-playing DARwIn-OP (nicknamed Jennifer) was able to “skate” on ice and rollerblades and shoot a puck with a pint-sized hockey stick, as PlasticPals reports.

Wondering how many of you could've not heard about the father of all geminoids, Hiroshi Ishiguro, the answer imposes itself right away: none. Professor Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, has taken over the stage at ICRA 12 twice. Monday, May 14, featured one of the most popular workshops already mentioned and introduced in InTech's previous post on ICRA, titled Robotics and Performig Arts: Reciprocal Influences. Prof. Ishiguro focused everyone's attention to his latest geminoid, Geminoid F, already known to the worldwide robotic audiences from previous conferences such as Hong Kong's "Robot Motion 2012" Expo were Geminoid F merrily sang to the audience from the stage.

Geminoid F has been described as the most convincing robot woman up until today, capable of 65 diverse facial expressions thanks to 12 motorised actuators allowing her to copy human expressions, talking and, well, serenading.

Moreover, Prof. Ishiguro got a few more tricks up his sleeves for the audience, the Hugvie robot and the Elfoid. Hugvie (huggable robot) is a plush figure serving to interact remotely with other people. As complicated as it might sound, the mechanical principle behind Hugvie is simple: you insert a smartphone into a pocket within Hugvie and you dial the number of who you want to remotely hug with. A tiny device within Hugvie converts the voice of your mate into vibrations calibrated by the volume and strenght of the voice on the other end of the line. Not forgetting that the heart is the centre of all life beats, both literally and figuratively, another device inside Hugvie imitates the pulse of a heartbeat. As for the aforementioned Elfoid, a tiny anthropomorphic android possibly to be commercialised as a cellphone, not only transmitting voice but also "human feel". How so? Erico Guizzo, IEEE Spectrum's editor and blogger describes the idea behind the Elfoid as follows, "The idea is you use a motion-capture system to transmit your face and head movements to the Elfoid, which would reproduce them, plus your voice, on its own little body, thereby conveying your presence." Guizzo terminates his article about the Elfoid with a symbolic question: "Any early adopters? Are you ready to "Elfoid" your friends?" We just raised our hands lively knodding our heads.

The second official appearance of Prof. Ishiguro at ICRA happened on the last day of the conference, May 18th, centred on a workshop titled The Future of HRI (Human-Robot Interaction), addressing the issue of assessing the main advances achieved during the past years and the main challenges that have still to be faced for new robotic applications as we do expect robots soon to become a part of our every day life and a common figure within today's society.

Finally, a lady to wrap it all up: social roboticist Heather Knight. Miss Knight, well-known among the world-wide robotics communities, raised much attention not only for her expertise in the field, but also for being a female roboticist. Yes, unfortunately still today the presence of female engineers and researchers in robotics as well as in general is low, and you could clearly sense it and most of all see it at ICRA. Nevertheless, to raise awareness and promote women in Engineering, ICRA held a social event on May 15th, Birds of a Feather Women Lunch, organised by Women in Engineering and Membership Activity Board, all sponsored by IEEE. Going back to Heather Knight, it can't be denied that as well as being one of the few successful women in the field, she is young, beautiful, witty with a handbag full of innovative ideas and striking new advances. Heather, currently on her doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon University and running Marilyn Monrobot Labs where "socially intelligent robot performances and sensor-based electronic-art" is brought to life, was also one of the participants and lecturers at the Robotics and Performing Arts workshop. Her main focus lies in "training" Nao robots to entertain the audience through jokes and cabaret-like performances, giving a human funny side to a robot lifeless machine.

Heather Knight was featured in a short reportage done by CNN and embedded below where she explains and demonstrates her amazingly-delivered efforts in robotics.

Finishing off our report on all-robotics at ICRA 2012 and hoping to be there next year too, we leave you with Hiroshi Ishiguro's quote which perfectly summarizes together the past, the present and the future not only of robotics as a scientific field but of the human kind as well:

'What is a human? Please define, and we will make a copy.'

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Article by:
Ana Nodilo,

Pictures by:
Petra Nenadic,