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Robots Get Smarter By Asking For Help

By New Scientist

September 22, 2009

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Willow Garage researchers are developing robots that ask human for help when they cannot recognize objects. Willow Garage computer scientist Alan Sorokin has designed a system for the company's Personal Robot 2 (PR2) that connects to Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a Web site that employers use as a vehicle to give workers simple tasks for a small commission. The PR2 photographs an object it doesn't recognize and sends it to the Web site. The workers use a program designed by Sorokin to trace the object on the computer and label it before sending it back to the PR2.

The PR2 can receive responses within minutes. Sorokin says the accuracy rate was 80 percent, but it could be higher if a second worker was hired to double check the image before it's sent.

Using Sorokin's system, a cleaning robot could spend a week photographing a new building and learning about its space before starting the job. "It's a fantastic idea," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticist John Leonard. He says that Sorokin's system could give robots the independence to work for hours without human input. Sorokin says the next step is to enable the PR2 to perform tasks in response to human input.

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