New Tech: Robots are Learning Without Human Programming

Irobot2 University of Arizona researcher Ian Fasel is building self-teaching robots robots that are learning to perform tasks with very little human programming. Humans have trained robots to build vehicles, fly airplanes, and perform surgery.

Because robots have no concept of self, nor do they truly understand what it is they are programmed to do, says Fasel, an assistant research professor of computer science, they are often are unable to problem solve – a design and implementation glitch that is the focus of Fasel's research -improving what robots are able to understand and learn, but without the aid of human programming.

"The prevailing technique for recognizing objects is for someone to collect a large database of examples – cars, pedestrians, faces," Fasel said. "It's a lot of work to find a lot of good examples and to prepare them in a learning algorithm."

The CLIME project involves training robots to learn concepts from trial and error in the world, whereas a second project teaches robots that already have some human-programmed concepts to seek out new information as efficiently as possible.

In effect, Fasel and his team are engineering a robot system that can teach concepts to itself, instead of requiring a human to program them in, as it learns how to interpret and control its sensors and motors.

"A lot of our language (as human beings) is metaphorical," Fasel said. "The argument we're making is if the robots can understand sensory and motor concepts, they won't make dumb mistakes when we try to talk to them."

"Further in the future, the real goal is for them to teach themselves commands," he said. "We really do want robots in which they learn commands to help humans interact with them." 

Fasel and his colleagues also are training robots able to detect emotion in their human counterparts – all with little or no programming.   

In 2003, Sony created "QRIO," a bipedal robot that recognizes voices and faces, which was subsequently featured in a music video by the popular music artist, Beck.  Other humanoid robotic models have been designed using recognition technology to comprehend certain movements, gestures and sounds and also to act as companions.

Much of the actual advancement in robotics has been driven by researchers feeding robots with algorithms that provide step-by-step explanations for processes and tasks and robots learning via computation. Fasel's approach is to determine less exhausting and time-consuming ways to teach robots. 

"In real-world applications, it would literally be some kind of unmanned aerial vehicle that needs to understand its flyover area," Fasel said. "Or, imagine if you had a household robot. It needs to know what it is, where it is and where objects belong."

Fasel also said understanding the learning patterns in robots may also help further knowledge about human nature. "What we want to do is learn about their behaviors as well," Fasel said. "Another part is understanding apparent curiosity in infants in constantly exploring the world."

Jason McManus via University of Arizona

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