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Science

RoboEarth's Internet for robots allows them to learn from each other

From its humble roots as an idea to coordinate a team of robotic football players, European researchers have created an Internet for robots - a way for them to share information across geographic divides.

A patient in a hospital bed is served by a robot hooked up to RoboEarth

Robots in different locations will be able to share data

Dr. Heico Sandee of the Eindhoven University of Technology is one of about 35 researchers at the Universities of Eindhoven, Munich, Stuttgart, Zurich and Zaragoza, as well as Philips, working on RoboEarth, an EU-funded project to create an Internet for robots. We sat down in Eindhoven and discussed the project.

So what can you tell me about the RoboEarth project?

RoboEarth is a European project supported by the European Commission in which we are creating an Internet for robots, so a World Wide Web for robots, in order to have robots learning from each other. It's a bit like we humans are doing it. Using Wikipedia pages people share their knowledge on the Internet which is very easily accessible and in this way people can very easily access knowledge from other people.

Can you talk about how robots would use their own Internet?

We have this database and we have interfaces through this database through which the robots can share their knowledge on all kinds of things. So, for instance, every year you have a new design for a bottle of milk which you need to be able to recognize and this bottle requires a new way of opening it. So you need to have an action recipe, some script on how to open this bottle. So when the manufacturer produces this bottle he supplies data on a website, for instance RoboEarth, and this data is used by the robot to open this new type of bottle that he just produced.

And where did the idea for RoboEarth come from?

The very initial idea started from a game that we have here, the RoboCup. It's robot soccer. It's a match in which various robots play against each other. And although it's a very simple-looking game it's becoming quite difficult to program these robots because they have to execute all these strategies and they have to operate jointly with the team. They need to pass the ball from one robot to another so it's quite a difficult thing to do if they operate by themselves and don't really care about what each other are doing.

All these years of experience that we have in this competition and all the experience we have in robotics made us think, 'Come on! We should have robots that share their knowledge'. It's so easy as these robots are already connected to a network for the fact that you need to program the robot. So we have a connection to a network, so why not just connect them to each other over the Internet. That's easier for a robot than it is for a human because well, we don't have these cables coming out of us.

It seemed so obvious to us that it would be easy. We saw in our environment that there was this need. And worked it out. We spoke to quite a few researchers in our field and they saw the huge potential in this idea.

So what are you doing to test RoboEarth for the project?

So what we did is we created a couple of similar hospital rooms as a test environment. And in these rooms there are robots working; to serve a drink to a patient or to help a patient do something that he can't do for himself because he's maybe bound to a bed.

So we have these hospital rooms with very different robots in them. At one location they are teaching a robot how to open a cupboard and in another location they are using this knowledge to have another robot do the exact same thing. We have different robots working together... and they are communicating using RoboEarth.

In the plot of the Hollywood film Terminator, robots have taken over the world after becoming self-aware. Do you ever face questions based on fears of this plotline coming true, with robots becoming more autonomous?

We get these questions a lot because the similarity is there in some sense, in that it's robots getting smarter. But what you should never forget is that there is always a human here who is in the loop. So for all this knowledge and all the things that the robot is doing, for instance opening this new bottle, it's always a human who is first programming the robot how to open this bottle. It's not yet foreseeable that the robot will be able to learn how to open a completely new bottle.

You also need to rely on safety, so often you will have these structures that the human must first tell the robot, 'OK, this is the way you can do it,' and then the robot can execute. And so in all these kinds of ways there is always a human that is in the loop.

Interview: Stuart Tiffen
Editor: Saroja Coelho

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