Make way for the robot classmates

20th April 2012 at 01:00
Academic plans to get pupils on board to advance artificial intelligence for the future classroom

Robots will be sophisticated enough to act as playmates and learning companions for children within a few decades, predicts a University of Edinburgh academic who plans to use Scottish pupils to help advance artificial intelligence.

Robots have tended to be designed to do one or two things - you push a button and they carry out the task, or else you hand full control of the robot to a person, said Subramanian Ramamoorthy, a lecturer in robotics.

Dr Ramamoorthy, however, wants to develop robots capable of interacting not only with each other but also with humans.

Children could help him and his fellow researchers achieve this goal, simply by doing what they do best - playing - he told TESS. And over the course of the next year, he will be recruiting pupils to do just that.

The children will be observed by Dr Ramamoorthy and his team as they play with the robots in creatively designed games, mainly around football.

"We hope to collect a lot of data, which we will later analyse. When the automaton did well, what was it doing? We develop the algorithms that enable these interactions and the children will help us find the holes in our theories," he said.

Football has been used before by the team as the catalyst for developing more sophisticated robots. Last year, it took part in the robot world cup, Robocup, in Istanbul.

Dr Ramamoorthy continued: "Robot soccer forces us to work on real-world issues, such as the need for fast reactions in a world with incomplete and noisy sensing, dynamic obstacles that are often adversarial and the need to cooperate with other agents.

"These are all crucial for the deployment of autonomous robots in the real world."

The children would also learn something from the experience, said Dr Ramamoorthy. The ways in which intelligent robots can enrich our lives will be highlighted and the role of engineers showcased.

Dr Ramamoorthy continued: "One question we face is, `what is the role of robots in day-to-day life?' We may be able to build a robot engaging enough to go into a primary school and amuse the kids for half-an-hour during lunch break during my scientific career. That would push us to the limits of what we know in artificial intelligence and make us solve many difficult problems."

Dr Ramamoorthy and his team are funding their latest work with a Royal Academy of Engineering "Ingenious" grant for creative public engagement with engineering projects. The scheme is supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Footballers . but not as we know them

P2 and P6 pupils from Sciennes Primary in Edinburgh visited Dr Ramamoorthy's robots at his University of Edinburgh lab in October last year.

It was "an absolutely magnificent experience", said depute head Carolyn Anstruther, especially for the P6 pupils, who had just completed a robots project.

"These are the things that inspire children and allow them to see there are a lot of possibilities and applications for their learning," she said.

The pupils thought they would be confronted by "a great big steel thing with buttons on the front" but in fact they were met by "cute, tiny wee, white people" with whom they were able to play football.

The trip challenged stereotypes about scientists, as well as robots, she said.

"The lab was beautiful - it was a magnificent building - and the people working there were young men. It was not a dusty old place with an old man sitting in the corner in a white coat."

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