BACKGROUND: Scientists at the University of Goettingen in Germany have built a robot that teaches itself how to walk like a human being: the computer inside learns how to adapt the robot's stride to different terrains and environments. Runbot holds the world record in speed walking for dynamic machines. Just like a human, it leans forward slightly and uses shorter steps. It can learn this behavior after only a few trial runs.
HOW IT WORKS: The Runbot has an infrared eye (a sensor) that can detect a slope on its path and adjust its stride accordingly. The robot's ability to switch quickly from one gait to another is due to the organization of the movement control. On the more basic levels, movement is based on reflexes driven by sensors. Control circuits ensure that the joints are not overstretched or that the next step is started as soon as the foot touches the ground. When the gait needs to be adapted, higher centers of organization step in. At its first attempt to climb a slope, RunBot will fall over backwards, since it has not yet learned to use its visual to change its gait. But like children learning to walk, the robot learns from its failures, leading to a strengthening of the contact between the eye and movement control. Once these connections are established, step length and body posture can be controlled by the visual signal.
HOW ROBOTS WORK: Robots are manmade machines intended to replicate human and animal behavior. Robots are made of roughly the same components as human beings: a body structure with moveable joints; a muscle system outfitted with motors and actuators to move that body structure; a sensory system to collect information from the surrounding environment; a power source to activate the body; and a computer "brain" system to process sensory information and tell the muscles what to do. Roboticists can combine these basic elements with other technological innovations to create some very complex robotic systems.
ABOUT A.I.: Robots and computer networks are always evolving intelligent consciousness in popular science fiction. But while modern scientists have made great strides in building computers that can mimic logical thought, they still haven't cracked the code of human emotion and consciousness. There are two prevailing schools of thought on artificial intelligence. Proponents of "strong AI" consider that all human thought can be broken down into a set of mathematical operations. They expect that they will one day be able to replicate the human mind and create a robot capable of both thinking and feeling, with a sense of self -- the stuff of classic science fiction. Think of the robot Number Five from the 80s movie Short Circuit, who suddenly realized, frightened, that he could be "disassembled" by the scientists who made him. "Weak AI" proponents expect that human thought and emotion can only be simulated by computers. A computer might seem intelligent, but it is not aware of what it is doing, with no sense of self or consciousness.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.