September 10, 2009

iCub, the Toddler Robot

( -- A little humanoid robot called iCub is learning how to think for itself, bringing the world of science fiction to reality. The major goal of the "RobotCub" project is to study how humans learn and think, using a robot with the size and brain of a toddler, but the study is also expected to have practical applications in the near future.

The robot, with its cute white face and big eyes, is designed to learn from experience and adapt to changes in its environment, just like a human child. As iCub learns, the scientists behind it hope to learn about the development of cognition in humans. According to research director Peter Ford Dominey, the goal is to understand more about the ability of humans to cooperate, work together, and understand what others want us to do.

Human intelligence develops through interaction with the environment and other human beings, and mental processes are strongly connected to the physical body and its actions. The central hypothesis of the project is therefore that the best way to model the human mind is to create a humanoid that is controlled by realistic algorithms and allowed to explore the world like a real child.
Scientists are working on several versions of iCub in laboratories throughout Europe, attempting to perfect the robot's "brain", but the birthplace of iCub is the Italian Institute of Technology (ITT) in Genoa, Italy, where the RobotCub project began in 2004 under the leadership of Giulio Sandini.

The iCub robot stands at just over three feet high, or about the size of a three year old child. Its face has just a hint of a nose and mouth, and its big eyes allow it to see and track objects in its environment. Its body consists of many electronic circuits built into articulated trunk and limbs that give it a wide range of movements. Sensors allow the robot to feel, and some iCubs can speak. In a recent experiment in Lyon, France, iCub demonstrated that it could change roles in a game. iCub watched two humans play the "game", in which one lifted up a box to reveal a toy, and the second lifted up the toy and put it down again. The first person then replaced the box over the toy. Having watched the game, iCub could take the part of either "player".

This game may sound simple enough, but such learning capabilities put iCub at the forefront of robotics research. It also raises the question of what is consciousness. If iCub understands that someone has a goal, is that consciousness? asks Dominey.

As well as the scientific advancements expected from iCub studies, the robots may well have practical uses in the future. Suggestions include playing games with hospital physiotherapy patients to help in their recovery, and in the longer term, perhaps even in the next decade, iCub could become a helper in the home, making its own decisions on what needs to be done.
The five year project is supported by the European Commission. The software is open-source and the developers are open to forming further collaborations with laboratories around the world.

September 9th, 2009 by Lin Edwards for

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