Posts tagged ‘robots’


Today Engadget reports on nifty Japanese technology that may revolutionize poop patrol!

The SWITL robotic hand, designed by Furukawakikou can pick up wet, gooey messes and move them without changing their shape. SWITL was developed to speed up and simplify the handling of soft and/or gooey materials at bakeries.

How does it work? According to Engadget it may be the tool of Satan:

Unfortunately, Furukawa Kikou isn’t providing any details about the science behind SWITL so we’ll just assume that it’s Satan’s work until otherwise informed.

When SWITL was first announced back in June of 2009 Japan Tech Niche reported (italics mine):

The “SWITL” was developed base on a need for automated process for lining up bread dough at the factory which was handled manually before. “SWITL” is technology is patent pending and can apply not only in the food industry but also in wide different filed of applications. The company is planning to develop a new products implementing “SWITL” technology in a near future. Interesting idea indeed, I leave it to your imaginative mind to come up with the SWITL new applications.

Evil or not, cross Roomba with SWITL and dog poop littering yards and parks across the country could be, well, eliminated!

March 28, 2011 at 9:25 am 5 comments

Who Knew?

The Boston terrier was the inspiration for Boston Dynamics’ LittleDog Robot!

LittleDog has four legs, each powered by three electric motors. The legs have a large range of motion. The robot is strong enough for climbing and dynamic locomotion gaits. The onboard PC-level computer does sensing, actuator control and communications. LittleDog’s sensors measure joint angles, motor currents, body orientation and foot/ground contact. Control programs access the robot through the Boston Dynamics Robot API. Onboard lithium polymer batteries allow for 30 minutes of continuous operation without recharging. Wireless communications and data logging support remote operation and data analysis. LittleDog development is funded by the DARPA Information Processing Technology Office.

LittleDog may be a high tech wonder, but… he’s not nearly as cute (or apparently as agile) as a real Boston. That said, I think I’d rather send a robot dog in to risk ‘life and limb’ searching dangerous rubble or explosive environments than a real dog.

February 1, 2010 at 8:01 pm Leave a comment

Good Luck With That

How did I miss this?

Back in April of 2009, reported that the United States Department of Defense wants to replace dog trainers with robots.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding research to “Develop and validate a portable device that automates the training of complex behaviors in animals without human intervention”

DARPA says they want robot dog trainers because:

Animal training currently requires long hours and the involvement of a human trainer.  The development of an automated mammalian training device would significantly reduce the need for human involvement.  In addition, it may enable the ability for remote on-site training in potentially limited access areas.  This device would also have the ability to better and more rapidly train an animal through the collection of performance metrics that indicate subject intelligence, capability, and progress.  Animal use is anticipated under this topic.

Of course – everybody knows that dog training requires nothing more than the rote implementation of a simple four quadrant operant conditioning algorithm. Even a robot can do it!

DARPA’s goal is to create an automated device that can train dogs to discriminate between objects, respond to verbal cues, retrieve objects, excel at tracking and more. Oh – and they want the doohickey to be cost-effective and portable too.

DARPA may have millions billions to spend, but I’m not planning for my retirement yet. If you’ve done enough dog training to accomplish much of anything, you know that it takes a lot more than well-timed rewards and punishments to train a dog. Teaching a dog how to do complex tasks reliably in the face of distractions is art, not algorithm and I think DARPA’s wasting taxpayer money.

Can DARPA build a computer that can read and correctly interpret canine body language? And can they make a robot that’s capable of using that information to communicate with dogs at a level that will allow it to train them to do complex tasks?

When I train a dog I don’t a complete a task, I enter into a relationship. A relationship built on trust and communication. A machine just can’t do that.

A computer probably has faster reflexes than I do, and it will probably work more hours for less pay – but it doesn’t have a soul. Dog training is an art and it takes years of mindful practice to do it well. When DARPA successfully builds a computer than can compose music or create sculpture, they may be ready to move on to dog training.

A machine won’t see the subtle shift in posture that tells me when a dog is confused and needs help. A computer can’t sense when to speed an exercise up, slow it down, make it simpler, add distractions – or just give the dog a heartfelt word of encouragement. I don’t think a robot will be able to tell how and when to transition between play and work to keep a dog motivated; or know exactly when to give it a break to process what it’s learned.

Most importantly, I don’t think that a creature that evolved to be a helpmate and companion to man will want to work for a machine. My dog doesn’t work for well-timed liver treats or tug toys – he works because he finds joy in the work – and in our relationship. No machine can replace that.

January 25, 2010 at 11:54 pm 8 comments

Robots Taking Dangerous Work From Dogs — and Men

Mover over Big Dog the little ‘dogs’ may be taking over — from CNET:

Release the fleas! SWAT and other urban assault teams could soon be deploying packs of all-seeing, hopping robots armed with mini missiles to ferret out the bad guys.

The EyeDrive unmanned ground vehicle (UGV)uses remote-controlled 360-degree panoramic video technology and a patented Point & Go sensor guidance mode to run down and “instinctively eliminate” human targets at ranges of up to 90 feet, according to ODF Optronics.


Built-in navigation allows multiple units to work in robotic unison, thus doubling, and even tripling, indoor reconnaissance capacity, according to the Israel-based company. In fact, the standard kit comes with two complete units. It could replace K-9s in attack mode and other dangerous duties

This 5-pound all-terrain mini mite can be tossed–or dropped–from up to about 10 feet and is dual-side operable, which means it’s self-righting. The “hopper” feature is optional. It allows the EyeDrive to hop over 3-foot obstacles, enhancing its observational capabilities, according to the developer.

Packs of five-pound robots who can survive being dropped, hop over over obstacles, travel right-side-up or upside-down, have 360 degree vision and work  in packs… what will they think of next? Well…

Defense Update reports that explosive-sniffing robots are also in the works:

The PackBot is equipped with a highly dexterous, 7-foot arm carrying the Fido sensor head and a communications interface sending explosive detection results to the Packbot Operator Control Unit (OCU). This integration model allows the Fido detector to be removed and utilized for general handheld operations in addition to the remote applications made possible by the Packbot. The manipulator arm allows the robot to place the explosive sensor close to suspicious packages and other objects, reach through car windows and under vehicles. When an explosive is detected, PackBot can use its on-board capabilities to destroy IEDs, while warfighters remain out of harm’s way.

“The sensitivity of the Fido explosives ‘sniffer’ is comparable to that of highly trained bomb dogs, and integrating this advanced detection capability with the versatile iRobot PackBot robots will help keep soldiers out of harm’s way,” said Colin Cumming, chief technology officer of ICx Technologies.

Inspired by the ability of bomb sniffing dogs to detect explosives, the ICx Fido Explosives Detector has the advantage of being both ultra-sensitive and capable of quickly screening packages, facilities, people and vehicles for traces of explosives. The breakthrough sensing technology behind the Fido detector supports both particle and vapor detection and allows operators the versatility and portability necessary for diverse detection and screening scenarios.

While we love working dogs, we’re glad to see that robots are taking this dangerous work away from dogs — and men. It sounds like (if the government doesn’t go dead broke) we’ll be seeing more of them. Homeland Security Today reports:

Technologies that iRobot developed for military applications under contract with the Pentagon are applicable to hostage situations, explosives detection and destruction, and border patrol, Joe Dyer, executive vice president and general manager of the government and industrial division of iRobot, told HSToday.

The homeland security market for robots could soar over the next several years with a government requirement that all certified bomb squads must have robots for explosives ordnance detection and disposal by the end of the decade.

There are domestic applications as well.  Locally, in the City of Bloomington, MN a robotic detection and surveillance device works alongside its human and canine counterparts.

December 10, 2008 at 8:02 pm 1 comment

Robots to Replace Service Dogs?

The latest on technology from MIT Technology Review:

Service dogs that open doors, switch on lights, and perform other useful tasks offer a much needed lifeline to people with disabilities. Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing robots that mimic the relationship between humans and their canine helpers.

Robotics researchers have long sought to create robots that can help out around the home. But while robots are good at carrying out preprogrammed tasks and following a clear trajectory, navigating a complex home environment and interacting with real people remains a formidable challenge.

Relationship is the key word here. I’ve met several people who had service or assistance dogs and helped training a few of them. Service dogs don’t just help their partners complete the tasks of day-to-day life, they’re also often vitally important companions and links to society.  An incredible bond develops between an assistance dog and it’s partner.

But I know there are some folks out there that, for various reasons, would prefer not to have a canine partner. If they don’t like monkeys or miniature horses either, I suppose a robot would be a good option. And – in fact – a capuchin monkey provided the inspiration for the Georgia Tech project called El-E.

The latest version of El-E has been upgraded so that, in addition to responding to a laser pointer, it understands voice commands and can perform a wider range of tasks. The robot can be commanded the same way as a service dog–to grab hold of a towel attached to a door, drawer, or cupboard when given the right vocal command. As with service dogs, towels help the robot with both perception and physical interaction. “[El-E] doesn’t know anything about the specific drawer or doors: it’s able to generalize with these commands,” says Kemp. “A towel is actually easy to grasp because you can be at many locations on it and still get a good grip.”

Here’s another important difference between a service dog and a robot.  After he’s lived with you for a while, the dog does know more than a little about which drawer is which and what’s in that drawer.  Along with a wonderfully sensitive nose, he’s got eyes, ears — and a brain, that help him in his work. With time, the dog can use those tools to do many tasks when they’re needed without needing to be told exactly when and how to do them. And, especially in the case of seeing-eye dogs, being capable of intelligent disobedience is an important safety factor. Dogs can learn to use Intelligent disobedience (which means that the dog learns not only when to obey his master’s commands, but also how to figure out when to disobey commands that might put them in danger), and I’m not sure that robot technology has come that far yet.

The article notes that along with being a viable option for people who have allergies – or who just don’t like dogs, EI-E may also be a more cost-effective solution than service dogs:

Kemp notes that a robotic service assistant would not require the same training and care as a service dog, potentially offering help to many more people. “A lot of people who would like a service dog are unable to have one because they are costly and there’s a long waiting list,” he says.

Hmmmm.  Maybe.  But won’t the robot require energy to operate?  What happens if you need it during that inevitable recharge cycle? You can roust a dog out a nap – or even out of his food bowl if you need him to fetch the phone to you after you’ve broken your hip, but a robot with a dead battery is just, well… dead.  And – I suspect that manufacturing processes have a way to go before a high-tech machine capable of following dozens of verbal commands in a range of environments and circumstances becomes more cost-effective than training a dog.

Either way – if and when the time comes when I need help to get through the day – I’ll choose to find it in my four-legged companions.  The bond one develops with a dog that works with you, a dog that knows he holds a vital place in your life, is a wonderful thing – and it’s one I’m quite sure I could not share with a robot.

Besides – I suck at computer programming but I can train a dog to do new tasks as I need them.

Audie: Getting the phone, sweeping the garage (with Zip’s help), cleaning (not drinking from!) the toilet and pulling clothes out of the dryer.  I *heart* my dog.

October 23, 2008 at 11:01 pm 4 comments

Robo Collie

A small black and white form enters the circular arena, gathers a flock of ducks and skillfully maneuvers them safely to their pen.  But Rover’s work wasn’t guided by a shepherd, it was modeled by a computer programmer.

Ten years ago researchers at PennState used a computer model simulating the ducks ‘ flocking behaviour to design a herding algorithm. The algorithm was initially tested in computer simulations then tranferred  to a robot that was used to herd ducks. It was reported as the first case of a robot system used to control an animal behavior in a useful way.

“Rover” is a vertical cylinder on wheels. designed to work outdoors on short grass. It can accelerate to 9 mph and outrun the ducks. It’s about a foot tall, 19 inches in diameter and cushioned in plastic to keep the ducks safe.  The system includes the mobile robot vehicle that herds the ducks, a computer and a camera. Camer images are analyzed by the computer to control the robot. Given a pre-programmed goal, the program uses a flocking algorithm to determine a path for the robot.

 Robo-Collie aka “Rover”

The Robot Sheepdog Project (RSP) was a collaboration between the Silsoe Research Institute and the universities of Bristol, Leeds and Oxford. 

According to the Robot Sheepdog Project website:

This may sound straightforward, but nothing like it has ever been tried before; we had to design the robot, guess the correct mathematical model, and implement it whilst ensuring that the ducks were never harmed! To do this we first relied a lot on simulation, and on seeing whether the mathematical model gave simulated results that “looked right” to expert duck herders. Finally, the system was tried with real ducks, and was shown to be capable of herding a flock of ducks from one end of an arena to a specified position at the other end.

The Spatial Reasoning research group is continuing the research work, but using robot sheep as well as robot sheepdogs to extend the theories without the complications of dealing with real animals.

The project uses a collection of small wheeled mobile robots, each of which can act as a sheep or a dog. The “sheep” behave according to a pre-programmed flocking model, whereas the “dogs” are controlled through an external PC. The dogs can be driven by a human using a joystick, or can be programmed to herd the sheep to a predetermined point.

Fascinating… but why go to so much effort when real sheepdogs do this work so well?  According to an article published by Simon Frasier University:

The sheepdog’s gather-and-fetch task was chosen because of its familiarity and the strong interaction between the dog, shepherd and flock animals. Using ducks instead of sheep allows us to experiment on a conveniently small scale, in a controlled indoor environment.  Duck flocking behaviour is recognised by shepherds as similar to sheep; ducks are often used to train sheepdogs because of their relatively slow movement. 

Flocking is considered an adaptive behaviour, as it a affords various advantages in hazard-avoidance, mating and foraging. Models of flocking behaviour exist in the literature and are generally derived from Hamilton’s observation that flocking may be produced by the mass action of individual animals, each seeking the proximity of its nearest neighbours. 

Similar models have produced realistic computer animations of bird flocks.  The best-known of these is Boids.  Boids, developed by Craig Reynolds in 1986, is an artificial life program, simulating the flocking behaviour of birds.  From Wikipedia:

As with most artificial life simulations, Boids is an example of emergent behavior; that is, the complexity of Boids arises from the interaction of individual agents (the boids, in this case) adhering to a set of simple rules. The rules applied in the simplest Boids world are as follows:

  • separation : steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
  • alignment : steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
  • cohesion : steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates


More complex rules can be added, such as obstacle avoidance and goal seeking.

A Boids Java applet that allows you to change program inputs and includes optional predators is available here.  If you tweak it a bit you can program it to have one predator that ‘herds’ boids that get separated back into the flock.

October 16, 2008 at 3:07 am 1 comment

“Just Like a Real Dog”

Today’s New York Times reports:

IN the 1930’s, when the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget quizzed children to find out if they could tell the difference between living creatures and inanimate objects, he concluded that they defined life by figuring out which objects could move by themselves, without an outside push or pull.

In the last 20 years or so, that particular theory of Piaget’s has been almost completely overturned by research showing that young children are not fooled by things like garage doors that move by remote control. That is, children can tell the difference between animals and machines even if the machines appear to move by themselves.

Now children are encountering a new category of objects, things that seem to possess intentions, preferences and others characteristics previously reserved for living beings.

In an age where robotics and virtual reality create increasingly believable simulations of living beings – do we risk raising a generation of children who find it difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy – and who have a vastly different idea than we do of what it means to be alive?

Dr. Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her research assistant Andrea Audley are conducting ground-breaking research on our evolving relationships with nonbiological objects.  According to the Times:

In a research project still in its early stages, Professor Turkle and Ms. Audley have visited after-school centers in the Boston area to watch the ways children 5 to 10 years old play with Furbies. They have also sent Furbies home with children and asked the children and their parents to keep diaries of the interactions.

Again and Again, Ms. Audley said, the researchers have asked the children: ”Is it alive? Is it like a real pet? Does it know you?”

”Strikingly,” Ms. Audley said, ”often the answer they settled on was, ‘It’s not alive in a human or animal kind of way, but in a Furby kind of way.’ ”

Watching children assign personality and emotion to toys is nothing new for children, but this category of ”sort of alive” breaks new ground. It is showing up more and more as a first generation of children plays with interactive toys that need attention and nurturing.

Is developing a new concept of what it means to “be alive” an adaptive response to a world where technology plays a greater role in our lives every day — or will this new, nebulous boundary between animals and robots, the worlds of the living and the pseudo-living, change the way we view living things in a new – and potentially maladaptive way?

Empathy plays a key role in how we understand and interact with other living beings.  When we talk about empathy, we generally refer to it in one of two ways: 

The first is the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to “read” and respond correctly to social signals and situations.

The second refers to the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotional state.  Colloquially – to walk a mile in their shoes.

How will our society’s experience and understanding of empathy change when that someone we are empathizing with is alive in “a Furby kind of way?”  When it doesn’t really  need to be fed, housetrained, or exercised, doesn’t age — and doesn’t die (or who, if he does “die”, can be replaced with a near exact copy).

Too many of us have already fallen for the twin allures of immediate gratification and entitlement.  It’s not enough to just want to have it all anymore, we’re entitled  to have it all – and not to have to wait for it.  The problem is – feeling like you’re entitled to immediate gratification has a tendency to reduce or eliminate your sense of empathy.  After all… caring takes time.  And effort.

A friend forwarded me a post today with this “puppies for sale” ad:

Have you ever wanted a dog but stopped yourself from getting one because:

* * * 1. *You’re allergic to their fur?
* * * 2. *You don’t have the energy or space for a big dog?
* * * 3. *Yappy dogs annoy you?
* * * 4. *You travel too much?
* * * 5. *You don’t have time to train a dog?
* * * 6. *You’re a cat lover?

* * * *Well I think I’ve got the solution for you! I have 6 beautiful puppies looking for a home!  And they’re perfect for you because:
* * * 1. *They don’t shed!
* * * 2. *Fully grown they weigh between 6 and 10 lbs!
* * * 3. *They don’t bark!
* * * 4. *They fit in any size doggy travel bag and are wonderful travel companions!
* * * 5. *They are very quick learners!
* * * 6. *They’re way better than a cat!

* * * *Claim yours today! They will be available to take home on ______. They are Shitzapoo’s, and they will be all caught up on shots and meds by the time they can go home with you. I own both of their parents and can assure you that the puppies are being well taken care of, and obviously come from a good home. ****

I don’t even know where to begin a critique of this ad.  There are so much ignorance on display here – the mind boggles.  So, apparenly, now even people who:

x x x   Don’t like dogs
x x x   Are too lazy to train a dog
x x x   Are too lazy to groom a dog or clean their house and –
x x x   Are more interested in a fashion accessory than a relationship…

Should  have dogs too. 

Yikes. Maybe the idea of pet robots isn’t so bad after all.  In a time when so many people appear to have already  lost their senses of empathy and mindfulness – the danger of growing up confused about what life is and is not may be balanced by one great big positive benefit – that careless and uncaring people can go out and buy companions who aren’t capable of suffering… 

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Given the potentially culture-changes effects they could have on us – the interesting question becomes – how will robotic companions change us.  Again from the Times:

Professor Turkle said. ”The new objects sidestep arguments about what is inherent in the machines and play instead on what they evoke in us.”

Mortality has traditionally defined the human condition, Professor Turkle said. ”A shared sense of mortality has been the basis for feeling a commonality with other human beings,” she said, ”a sense of going through the same life cycle, a sense of the preciousness of time and life, of its fragility.

When we live with beings who don’t go through the same cycles of birth, life and death that we do; who can be conveniently turned off or put into storage when we don’t have time for them; and who can be repaired or replaced when they malfunction – will we also lose some part of our sense of the beauty and fragility of real lives?

September 18, 2008 at 7:23 pm 1 comment

Man’s Best Friend Meets Man’s Next Friend

I recently posted one story on the ways an artist proposed to use technology to improve the lives of dogs and another about how researchers used a robotic dog to try to study how docked tails might affect dog-dog interactions.  I still don’t agree that artificial hackles or LED tails will help dogs live more meaningful lives or that using a robotic dog to study how real dogs interact with each other is scientifically valid but…. In a recent bit of internet research I was stunned to see how much time people spend comparing man’s best friend to man’s next friend.

Here’s a couple of examples of how robots might benefit real dogs:

I adored this robotic ball-throwing machine and the incredibly cool dachshund that enjoys playing with it – in moderation.  (but I am quite sure that my kelpie would kill herself if we had one of these…..) 

Here’s a nifty remote robotic dog treat dispenser.  It lets you IM treats to your dog! 

Now here’s some examples of how humans might use robotic dogs to improve our lives: 

Check out the creepy robotic “dog” developed by defense contractors.  Frankly, this one didn’t strike me as particularly doglike.  Was that because it sounds like a hive of electronic bees or perhaps because it because it HAS NO HEAD?  Yuck. 

Hey!  This is the perfect pet for those folks who want a dog but don’t want to bother with training it! 


Is this a robot dog or a human in dog suit mimicking a dog robot?  You decide. 

NSFW robotic dog controlled by a television ventriloquist 

A real dog attacks a robotic dog WITH A LONG TAIL!

March 28, 2008 at 5:33 pm 1 comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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