February 9, 2011
Robots could soon have an equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia.
European scientists have embarked on a project to let robots share and store what they discover about the world.
Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.
Researchers behind it hope it will allow robots to come into service more quickly, armed with a growing library of knowledge about their human masters.
The idea behind RoboEarth is to develop methods that help robots encode, exchange and re-use knowledge, said RoboEarth researcher Dr Markus Waibel from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
"Most current robots see the world their own way and there's very little standardisation going on," he said. Most researchers using robots typically develop their own way for that machine to build up a corpus of data about the world.
This, said Dr Waibel, made it very difficult for roboticists to share knowledge or for the field to advance rapidly because everyone started off solving the same problems.
By contrast, RoboEarth hopes to start showing how the information that robots discover about the world can be defined so any other robot can find it and use it.
RoboEarth will be a communication system and a database, he said.
In the database will be maps of places that robots work, descriptions of objects they encounter and instructions for how to complete distinct actions.
The human equivalent would be Wikipedia, said Dr Waibel.
"Wikipedia is something that humans use to share knowledge, that everyone can edit, contribute knowledge to and access," he said. "Something like that does not exist for robots."
It would be great, he said, if a robot could enter a location that it had never visited before, consult RoboEarth to learn about that place and the objects and tasks in it and then quickly get to work.
While other projects are working on standardising the way robots sense the world and encode the information they find, RoboEarth tries to go further.
"The key is allowing robots to share knowledge," said Dr Waibel. "That's really new."
RoboEarth is likely to become a tool for the growing number of service and domestic robots that many expect to become a feature in homes in coming decades.
Dr Waibel said it would be a place that would teach robots about the objects that fill the human world and their relationships to each other.
For instance, he said, RoboEarth could help a robot understand what is meant when it is asked to set the table and what objects are required for that task to be completed.
The EU-funded project has about 35 researchers working on it and hopes to demonstrate how the system might work by the end of its four-year duration.
Early work has resulted in a way to download descriptions of tasks that are then executed by a robot. Improved maps of locations can also be uploaded.
A system such as RoboEarth was going to be essential, said Dr Waibel, if robots were going to become truly useful to humans.