Robots With Faces

By Jessica L. Tozer

Admittedly, the initial idea of a robot with a face conjures up memories of every single SciFi robot movie I’ve ever seen.  Usually involving humans fleeing in terror as the autonomous voice screams “kill, kill” while shooting  rockets out of a gun-arm.  Or overly negative and depressed, like Marvin the Paranoid Android.  Frankly, I’d take my chances with the later.  He’d be a downer, but at least he has no plans for world domination.

Despite my preconceived notions of the robotic overlord race that is sure to enslave (or depress) us all, my experience at the Navy’s new robotics lab was a little less dramatic.  What I discovered was not a legion of soldier robots, but a team of highly trained scientists prepared to explain how they’re working toward a goal of integrating robotics into military life.

The brand new Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR), located at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. is spearheading efforts to combine human interaction with robotic skill and capability.  The goal is to take the best of both worlds and find a way to make missions easier and more effective for service members.  This means everything from locating IEDs to fighting fires.

So how are they doing that?  It all starts in the lab, of course.

This complicated and scientific process involves running experiments on autonomous systems in different situations and different environments.  Luckily, LASR is equipped with different environmental rooms designed to provide just that.  Scientists who work at the lab can step into the desert for a quick sandstorm, then walk across the hall to the rainforest to run experiments.  All of this without having to set foot outside the Navy’s new robotics laboratory.

“It’s the first time that we have, under a single roof, a laboratory that captures all the domains in which our sailors, Marines and fellow DOD service members operate,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research. “Advancing robotics and autonomy are top priorities for the Office of Naval Research. We want to reduce the time it takes to deliver capability to our warfighters performing critical missions. This innovative facility bridges the gap between traditional laboratory research and in-the-field experimentation—saving us time and money.”

Several of the projects going on in this lab are working toward creating viable solutions for problems service members might actually face.  One of these is Damage Control for the 21st Century—a program to develop firefighting robots for use aboard Navy ships.

Meet Lucas.

Dr. Greg Trafton (left) and Lucas the Robot at the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR)

Lucas is a computerized cognitive model robot.  This means he’s designed to act the way a person does, and reacts the way a person might.  He’s built with a trifecta of skills: mobile, dexterous and social capabilities.  This means that he’s able to assume people think differently (e.g. don’t always come to the same conclusions), and he understands human limitations.

This concept is known as the “theory of the mind”, as Dr. Greg Trafton explained.  Trafton, a roboticist at the Navy Center for Allied Research in Artificial Intelligence, Information Technology Division, NRL explained that Lucas was created to appear more human than robot so he could solve human problems in a more practical manner.  Basically, Trafton’s working to create robots that think.

Lucas “thinks” using computational theories to find out what a person might be thinking in certain situations.  Lucas – and his female counterpart, Octavia – can see and understand words, expressions, even hand gestures.

Octavia is quite the fire-fighting expert, and her facial expressions tell me she knows it.  So why the anthropomorphic adaptation (including questioning eyebrows that rise so high as to only be rivaled by Dr. McCoy)?  Dr. Trafton says that the stoic face is for more than just aesthetic purposes.

“A crisis situation is stressful for humans,” he says.  “Humans respond to facial expressions.  Having a robot with real expressions, calm expressions, can help to keep a tense situation under control. ”

But the robot fun doesn’t stop with fire.  LASR is full of incredible advances in technology, like the Pectoral Fin Swimmer—an underwater robot that was designed using biology; that is, created and designed using models of actual fish.  The experts at the Littoral High Bay (or, as I call it, the “water room”), have found a way to use sediment to make a battery.

Microbial fuel cells feed off of waste water to extract energy content, turning organic matter into energy.

Microorganisms create energy by tapping into the microbial process.  With this technology, scientists can operate sensors indefinitely by harnessing the power of the ocean and water sources.  They’re already using this kind of microbial-powered technology to monitor sea turtles.  Hey, if it’s good enough for sea turtles, it’s good enough for me.

A battery…out of the stuff you try to avoid touching with your toes when you’re at the beach.  How’s that for a sustainable energy source?

The lab is also working to create tactile sensing robots – basically robotic skin, complete with “sensation” capabilities – by working with a process that uses biologically-inspired robotics.  An android that can think, emote and now feel?  My SciFi sense is tingling.

Regardless of your fear, apathy or intellectual interest in robotics, one thing’s for sure: the LASR research facility is helping to create the face of the future.  And that’s a face I think I could love…or bow down to, depending on the type of proletariat I am.

Just remember, when the Lucas-bot armies are taking over the world, I can say “I knew him when”.

And, after all, it’s all about who you know, eh?

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is also an avid science fiction fan and now slightly more paranoid about robot takeovers than she was before.  Just a little bit.


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