Nao is a small humanoid robot that chats, dances and competes in the world robot soccer championships.
Bristlebots combine toothbrush heads and vibrate motors to make bug-like robots inspired by ancient creatures.
Welcome to the wacky world of robots.
Nao looks at you intently when you ask it a question. Its eyes flash as if they are blinking and it tilts its head engagingly to the side.
Some of the replies are spot on – a cheerful ‘hello’ in reply to your greeting. Other answers are comically Socratic; ‘the opposite of what isn’t your favourite programme’, says Nao, in reply to a question about its favourite radio programme.
Developed by SoftBank Robotics, Nao can dance and perform tai chi, as well as playing soccer.
For the past decade it has been the official player in the standard platform league at RoboCup, the robot soccer world cup. This international competition began in 1996, and features teams of autonomous robots, programmed to play on their own without any human input.
The competition has the lofty aim of creating soccer-playing robots that can win against the human world soccer champions by 2050, but although SoftBank Robotic’s Alix Chen thinks the robot revolution is just around the corner, even he says that today’s robots are a long way off winning that challenge.
Kai Feng explains that Nao is totally programmable. “Students, kids or researchers … can use their imaginations to programme the robot to do whatever they want it to do.”
Nao has a ‘big sister’ called Pepper. She is designed as a service robot, helping people in supermarkets, for example, find a box of tissues or a tin of beans. She can also be a companion to people who live alone, sending emails and looking up information.
But Alix admits that when it comes to “a human-shaped robot that could help with the cooking, making coffee or maybe cleaning the house – we’re not there yet.”
The Bristlebot cleaning brigade
When University of Otago zoologist and roboticist Mike Paulin imagines house-cleaning robots, he isn’t seeing a large humanoid robot.
Mike sees a cleaning squad of tiny robots that act like ants – swarming out of the cracks to eat the kitchen bench clean, then hiding away once the job is done, converting the crumbs they have consumed into fuel to keep them running.
The first step towards this dream of swarm robots is taking place at the science festival in Dunedin. Scores of excited kids are assembling their very own Bristlebot robots, made from a toothbrush head and a vibrate motor, like the one in your mobile phone.
“I think of [the Bristlebots] as models of simple animals … without brains, that we can use to study how brains evolved,” says Mike.
Mike finds nature inspiring.
“We look at the animals and how they are put together, and try to figure out if there are … efficient ways we can make intelligent robots.”
Malcolm MacIver is a bio-inspired robotics engineer from Northwestern University in the United States. He says a developing research area is “getting robots to have more sensory intelligence.”
“You get up in the middle of the night and you have no difficulty getting around the house in the darkness and with lots of ambiguity,” says Malcolm. “Robots [on the other hand] have a very hard time unless you have a carefully controlled environment.”
As he talks, the Dunedin kids are squealing with excitement as their Bristlebots bustle around like demented bugs, ricocheting off the rim of the tabletop, and bumping into each other on their madcap random walks.
Malcolm sees order and possibility in the chaos. “People are putting their Bristlebot robots down ... and they are interacting and forming little patterns. And this is a really intense area of research at the moment – how do you get swarms of independent robots working towards a collective goal.”
Malcolm suggests that a good use for swarm robotics would be a team of underwater robots that could swim above a coral reef and map its health. He argues that it would be much cheaper and more efficient than using a team of human divers.
It is clear that there is a robot revolution coming, but Mike says it is not quite here yet.
“Ants are [still] smarter than the smartest robots we have these days.”