'Wikipedia for robots': Because bots need an Internet too

RoboEarth, meant to be a Web community where caregiving bots can autonomously swap knowledge, is about to be demonstrated. Please don't let the Terminator have access to this thing.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read
RoboEarth will be demonstrated this week using four robots helping patients in two simulated hospital rooms. RoboEarth

If robots are really going to take over the world, they'll first need to search the Internet for extra-long-lasting batteries and cool-looking campaign ribbons to decorate their brave warrior drones.

And now that they're getting their own "Wikipedia for robots," they can. OK, they might not be able to swap information on armor-piercing ammunition, but robots will be able to share know-how on at least some topics keen to the cybermind.

Meet RoboEarth, an online international database for robots looking to learn new skills from their fellow automatons. Created by scientists at Philips, Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and four other European universities, RoboEarth is initially meant to target the growing number of household and caregiver robots aimed at the world's aging populations.

"At its core, RoboEarth is a World Wide Web for robots: a giant network and database repository where robots can share information and learn from each other about their behavior and their environment," explains a description on the RoboEarth project page.

A participating robot could, for example, image a hospital room and upload the resulting map to RoboEarth. A fellow robot unfamiliar with the room's layout could then use that map to locate a pill box without having to search for it endlessly, or be forewarned that equipment or furniture has been moved. Slow-thinking flesh and blood humans could upload data to the cloud-based system, as well -- in a machine-readable format, of course. The RoboEarth Cloud Engine (also called Rapyuta) also allows robots to quickly offload their insights to secure computing environments, meaning they wouldn't need as much onboard computing power.

The idea is that for robots to more successfully lend a helping humanoid hand, they'll need to be able to move beyond their usual highly controlled and predictable environments to deal more flexibly with new situations and conditions.

"The problem right now is that robots are often developed specifically for one task," René van de Molengraft, a RoboEarth project leader, said in a statement. "Everyday changes that happen all the time in our environment make all the programmed actions unusable. But RoboEarth simply lets robots learn new tasks and situations from each other. All their knowledge and experience are shared worldwide on a central, online database."

Will robots use their new World Wide Web to share Wildcat videos? Duh! Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

Japan, in particular, is increasingly turning to robots to ease the burden on caregivers in hospitals, nursing homes, and even private homes.

The largest-ever edition of Tokyo's iRex robot trade show last year promoted multiple robots for an aging society: among them, the Unimo, a $10,000 deluxe robotic wheelchair on treads that can travel through snow and sand; the Terapio from Adtex, a roving hospital robot with a cartoon face, camera system, and compartments for transporting medical records and equipment; and the Lighbot, a kind of cane on wheels with obstacle sensors and a pressure-sensitive handle.

Four years in the making, RoboEarth will be presented Thursday to a delegation from the European Commission, which financed the project, using four robots helping patients in two simulated hospital rooms.

Once the robots are done with the demo, who wants to bet they'll go right back to sharing Wildcat videos? As long as they're not spending their Internet time hanging around the Terminator's how-to blog, we probably don't have much cause to worry.

(Via BBC News)