Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wikipedia for robots

Robots have become an essential tool in manufacturing and slowly but surely they are becoming part of our households as well. The vacuum cleaning robot is available in any self respecting house hold appliances store, robotic pets are a reality and children (and adults!) learn to program robots with their Lego Mindstorms sets.

But it seems that the production of robots is still somewhat of a case by case affair. Every robot is made for one purpose and in many cases its programming is a case of reinventing the wheel. A group of European scientists have plans to change this. They are setting up RoboEarth. RoboEarth is essentially a database of knowledge about real world situations that robots can use to quickly adapt to changing environments. This will help the field of robotics to advance much faster. If I understand it correctly, RoboEarth will function as a collective memory for robots. It's not yet a hive mind but it's getting there.

The stuff of classic science fiction is getting more and more real every day. The phrase "I for one welcome our new robotic overlords" may be slightly premature but robots capable of learning to interact with new environments from robot-wikipedia is compelling stuff. No matter how you define intelligence, knowledge is an intrinsic part of autonomous operation. An animal can survive autonomously because of the knowledge it has about its environment. Allowing robots to tap into a fount of information about a multitude of environments is another step in the direction of creating autonomous artificial creatures that can operate outside their designated environment. The robots of Asimov may become an everyday reality. It may be a while yet, but they seem less a figment of the great science fiction writer's imagination than they used to be.

More on RoboEarth in this BBC news article.

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