Robot Slaves Coming Soon!

Robot Slaves Coming Soon!


I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t wait for my handsome robot butler-slave to arrive. And he will be damn busy.

By Nicole Buckler


Last year, our magazine predicted robotic helpers within our lifetime. And it looks like this is now achingly within our reach.

And why do we say that fully-functional robots are within our reach? Beause an unsupported bipedal robot at the University of Michigan can now walk down steep slopes, through a thin layer of snow, and over uneven and unstable ground. This is a big deal.

The movement and balance that is involved in simply walking is one of the wonders of life as a human being. And our ability to walk upright doesn’t come easy. It takes our babies years to conquer it. And even then, they suck at it for a long time. They look like drunken party animals for several years before they stop falling over their own feet and walking into door handles. Even fully grown humans haven’t entirely conquered walking. We often fall over into a bush or face-plant onto the road for no apparent reason. Which is why humans should always wear respectable undies.

So when boffins say they have conquered this aspect of robotics, it’s no small deal. It means we are closer than ever to having the robot slaves we were promised in Star-Trek. And I want science to deliver on all those promises that imaginative Sci-Fi has filled our minds with. I certainly want my own Lieutenant Commander Data doll. Not only can Data feed any pets you have (he has his own cat on board the Enterprise that trusts no one but him), he can also do any maths you need done, like working out what bank has the best mortgage rates. He can take out the bins, babysit the kids without getting cross at them, and cook dinner. Well, he can get the replicator to do it, which is good enough for me. And let’s just remember that Data is fully functional. Ladies, you get me. He is programmed in many “techniques.” And as we know, it’s all about the techniques. Robot scientists: TAKE MY DAMN MONEY.

So back to the real world, scientists are well on their way to theoretically giving us our own Lieutenant Commander Data doll. To enable independent “walking” over unfamiliar terrain is a small step for a robot, but a giant leap for mankind.

Jessy Grizzle, a professor of electrical engineering, is currently working on a girl robot called MARLO. Of utmost importance is the robot’s feedback control algorithms. This allows the robot to work out the terrain and how to transverse it. Now, MARLO walks like toddler new to being on their feet. Which is awesome.

MARLO can walk (and fall) in any direction, known as 3D walking. Now that Grizzle and team have cracked 3D walking, this can help other two-legged robots to surge forward. Says Grizzle, “The robot has no feeling in her tiny feet, but she senses the angles of her joints – her knee angles, hip angles and the rotation angle of her torso. It’s like walking blindfolded and on stilts.”

“Getting a robot to walk well in 3D can be a very frustrating process,” said Xingye Da, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. Da created the new algorithm that has helped researchers speed up the process of achieving stable walking on their robots. He created a library of 15 gaits to handle different walking speeds and ground heights. Each gait is optimized for energy efficiency – making the movement as natural as possible – and respects the constraints of the robot. Now MARLO blends gaits from the library to fit her environment.

Using an Xbox controller, Da can tell MARLO how quickly to walk and in what direction. But the rest is up to her. MARLO demonstrated Da’s algorithm in tests walking through snow, down a steep hill, and on randomly stacked plywood squares covered in astroturf and scattered with more obstacles.

This approach works as long as the robot doesn’t have to make quick turns or sideways movements, but to achieve true agility, the control algorithm must be more integrated with the controller.

So Brent Griffin, a doctoral student in electrical engineering and computer science, is on the case. He is developing a fully 3D controller to work with Da’s walking algorithm. Over the summer, the team plans to merge the two control algorithms into one “super-algorithm” that can support more agile movements.

MARLO exhibits the best walking ability that the team knows of for a robot that doesn’t have powered ankles. “The major product of our research is a recipe for legged locomotion,” said Grizzle. “We try to write it precisely and generally enough that others can use it, and they don’t have to call us up and say, ‘What’s the special sauce?'”

The codes that Grizzle’s team used to make MARLO walk on flat ground serve as the basis for algorithms developed in other labs for different kinds of robots. Robert Gregg, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering at the University of Texas-Dallas, adapted the algorithm to control a prosthetic lower leg. When an amputee tried out Gregg’s robotic leg on a treadmill, he was able to walk naturally.

“The ability of MARLO to gracefully navigate uneven terrains is very exciting for my work in prosthetics,” Gregg said. “We hope to encode similar abilities into our robotic prosthetic legs so that lower-limb amputees can just as easily walk about the community without having to think about the terrain.”

Amazing. But hurry up on that robot slave. I’m getting lazier by the day.


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