CNN Technology

Tiny robots learn to be social


September 26, 1995
Web posted at: 12:05 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Brian Jenkins

WALTHAM, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Programming a robot to spot a puck, pick it up and carry it "home" is simple enough in the age of computers. But how do you keep a group of robots from bashing into each other as they go about the job, and at the same time have them find the most efficient way to get the job done cooperatively?

Maja Mataric

That's what Maja Mataric set out to learn a few years ago at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. She took a group of small robots she calls "The Nerd Herd" and programmed them to flock together, but also give each other space. "The basic objective is to understand what goes on in nature with animals by programming robots with similar behaviors," she said. To help them improve their performance, Mataric programs each robot to give itself points for finding food -- the pucks -- and deduct points for goofing up.

the Nerd Herd resting

To get the Nerd Herd to work as a group, she rigged each robot to send a radio signal to the others when it found food. "Sometimes the robots would listen and sometimes they wouldn't," she said. "And if they didn't listen, they would get less food and then they would be unhappy, and over time they would learn that it's good to be social, in this group."

the Don group

When she became an associate professor at Brandeis University, Mataric brought along the Nerd Herd -- 20 robots in all, on loan from MIT. There are only a handful of other laboratories in the world doing similar research, and none of those labs has as many mechanical creatures to work with as Mataric has. Besides the Nerd Herd, Mataric also has the Don group -- Don Quixote, Don Corlione, Donna E. Mobile and The Donald. Between the two groups, she hopes to see if robots can learn to specialize in one task or another, and defer to those who do the other jobs more efficiently.

Take look at the robots in training - 791K QT movie.

the Dons running amok

What she's after defies popular expectation that robots will come to resemble the type imagined in Star Wars. "I think instead of looking for one really smart human-like robot, what we'll have is simple ones that will interact on tasks," she said. "So instead of having one robot that cleans your house and makes your coffee and delivers your paper, you might have lots of little ones to vacuum your carpet and something automated in your kitchen that makes your coffee, and they will interact, maybe, through some radio system." A sort of robot society, where members not only follow orders, but learn to do their jobs better.

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