Assistant Campus Life Editor

The work of Manuela Veloso, Herbert Simon professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, concerns a field of study often reserved for science fiction stories.

At Thursday’s Common Hour lecture, Veloso discussed her research in artificial intelligence and robotics, which, although purely scientific, can sometimes sound similar to a science fiction movie. Her talk focused on the development in recent years of robots that possess autonomy, or are aware of their limitations and can proactively ask humans for help, communicate with other robots, and access the Internet to search for new information.

Advanced robots are beginning to integrate the core capabilities of human beings. They have perception, which allows them to understand the world, and cognition, which allows them to select actions and learn from their experiences.

“Humans really are machines that can do it all,” Veloso said. “Perception, cognition, and detection, and in that sense that’s how I look at robots, in those three ways.”

In particular, Veloso has developed programs and algorithms that allow robots to communicate with each other and be autonomous, meaning they are not actively controlled by humans. Instead, once they are programmed by scientists they can coordinate their own actions without human input.

Veloso began her talk by discussing her development of autonomous dog-like robots. After developing new programs of algorithms that give the dogs their intellectual abilities and the ability to move, scientists download the programs through an entry in the robot that is similar to a USB port. After this, the robot can carry out independent actions based on the baseline capabilities the programming gives it.

Veloso accompanied her talk with video footage of various robot dogs playing soccer games in teams, referred to as Robot Soccer. She urged the audience to think of robot dogs in terms of their scientific structure, instead of their aesthetics.

“You are here to put on a computer science hat and ignore how cute they look,” Veloso said. “They are actually a plain laptop with a camera and legs. They are a machine that is making computations, analyzing images, and can walk.”

Each dog robot has a camera on its head that gives it 2-dimensional vision, the ability to walk on four legs, and the ability to communicate wirelessly to share information with other dog robots.

Robot Soccer has given scientists a way to improve the communication and coordination that is possible among separate robots.

“It’s not remote-operated, it’s an autonomous team,” Veloso said. “They run a program and do not get any input from humans on what they should be doing. It’s a 20 minute game with all-new opponents. Everything they do is all done by themselves.”

To be able to play soccer, the robots have to perceive the world around them and analyze what they are seeing with real-time perception. The robot also uses visual markers on the soccer field to determine its location. Robots send information wirelessly to each other, similarly to how humans communicate through speech, to support each other and facilitate teamwork throughout the game.

In addition, Veloso discussed the development of Service Robots, also called CoBots, which are human-like robots that can speak and complete specific assigned tasks. Tasks could include delivering mail or accompanying people throughout buildings as tour guides.

These CoBots are each built on wheels, have a camera to give it vision, have a podium with a laptop, and sensors to determine the location of objects and people. They coordinate their movement based on understanding maps they store of the building they are in and calculating their positions on it.

In recent years, CoBot technology has advanced greatly. The robots are now able to use route planning, so they can calculate the shortest possible route to a new location. They can also access the Internet to look up information or facts to complete a task and remember the information and facts they research.

“Now the robot knows it might need help,” Veloso said. “We want it to be functional, but also usable. Autonomy is no longer about knowing it all. It is about knowing when to go outside to get help and how to access sources of help.”

Despite these advancements, the service robots still have many limitations. They do not have the ability to universally recognize an object, they cannot apply their learning to varied situations, and they do not have arms, legs, or any way to pick up or open objects. They cannot deal with new situations or any occurrence for which they have not been specifically programmed.

“We envision autonomous robots that coexist and interact with humans while performing assistance tasks,” Veloso said. “But such robots are still far from common because our environment offers great challenges to robots in terms of perception, cognition, and action. For instance, I did not practice to open the doors at F&M when I came here. A robot would be stuck here with any door that doesn’t look like the door it has already seen.”

When traveling to a new location in a building, for example, a CoBot might know it needs to take an elevator to get to another floor. However, because it does not have arms, it would not be able to push an elevator button and would have to wait for a human to come and push the button for it.

“What’s hard about research in robotics is to get the robots to be intelligent in all circumstances,” Veloso said. “If I drop a bunch of water on the floor, CoBot will not stop because it is not programmed to stop for or detect water; it has no code to detect that. One question we generally get is, ‘when will these robots be like humans?’ Well humans have this incredible breadth; we can do it all. Who knows if [the robots will] ever be like humans. But they can still be very useful if they do a specific task well.”

Questions asked by audience members included the use of robotics in self-driving cars, how robots build trust among themselves to believe the information other robots communicate to them, and the role morality plays in the development of robots.

Veloso described the focus of her work as being the collaboration between humans and robots and believes the major applications of service robots in the future will be to help people. They could be used, for example, to aid disabled people, to escort people in unfamiliar locations or give them directions, or to work in schools. Veloso said technology will probably advance enough to make this possible within the next few years.

Although Veloso and other scientists are continually working to advance robots, they do not foresee a time in the near future when robots will have the same abilities as humans.

“Sometimes in robotics what we struggle for is, ‘what are the robots actually going to do?,’ Veloso said. “We really don’t need robots. We as humans can do everything they can do. It’s really scientific curiosity that drives their development.”

Questions? Email Julia at

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