Thinking It Through.

Author:Barlow, Rich
Position:SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY - Self-guiding, object-spotting robots

"Thatis a ball." "I do believe that is a cone." "Seems like a wonderful book." The voice is mechanical and flat, and anyone offering such banal commentary and sounding so bored surely would bomb in a job interview but, in this case, the observations are impressive. They are made by what looks like a two-foot-tall stack of hors d'oeuvre trays on wheels, careening around the floor and proclaiming its discoveries as its "eye," an attached camera, falls on them.

This robot has learned to recognize these specific objects--and to steer around obstacles, albeit clumsily--without human guidance. Its camera sends information about what it sees to a laptop sitting atop the robot; the laptop in turn communicates with a laboratory desktop, whose monitor flashes whatever the robot's camera catches.

"It's almost self-thinking" in its ability to get around roadblocks, explains Emily Fitzgerald, who bestowed the 'bot with a brain as her summer project with Boston University's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which provides funding for faculty-mentored research by undergrad students. More important than the robot's autonomous navigation, she indicates, is its ability to recognize specific objects.

Such self-guiding, object-spotting robots are a Holy Grail for scientists, with potential applications that include exploring distant planets' landscapes. In Fitzgerald's case, she used a deep neural network, a form of artificial intelligence that simulates brain neurons. Deep neural networks process huge amounts of data to solve problems, like recognizing a ball or cone.

"There's an algorithm that will take a ton of pictures of one object and will put it in and compile it all," explains Fitzgerald. "Then we basically assign a number to it." The robot """""will come upon an object and it will say, 'Oh, there's an object in front of me; let me think about it.' It will find a picture that corresponds with the object, pick that number, and then it will be able to use that as a reference, so it can exclaim, 'Oh, it's a ball,' 'It's a cone,' or whatever object I had decided to teach it."

Massimiliano Versace, founding director of the Neuromorphics Lab, oversaw...

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