RoboEarth: An Internet for robots
Feb. 3, 2014
by Mark Ollig

How has using the Internet improved the human condition?

One answer is in its capacity for allowing people to add, retrieve, and benefit from the information contained within it.

The Internet helps us to get prompt answers to our questions.

It also provides us with the processes needed to complete specific tasks using the information uploaded by others who have already accomplished them.

We are able to access this wealth of human-collected knowledge from just about any location on the planet.

Countless people have contributed to this ever-expanding pool of intelligence we share amongst ourselves.

The Internet is to us, as Paul Otlet’s early 20th century collection of thousands of wooden drawers filled with cataloged books and papers, were to him.

The story of Paul Otlet is one worth reading. Here is the link to the column I wrote about him July 21, 2008: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-Otlet.

We know how humans have used the Internet for the improvement and betterment of their lives, but what about the robots? How do they learn, and improve upon accomplishing their tasks?

People create the programing software code used by a robot in order for it to logically complete a task.

When a modification to a task a robot performs is needed, an intervention or a change is required to be made by a human.

This human involvement takes additional time, and, until the program changes are implemented, the robot will encounter delays in its ability to complete tasks.

What if the robot could wirelessly tap into a knowledge database having the information it needed for making its own program modifications; thus quickly adapting itself in performing new tasks?

And what if this knowledge base included contributions made by other robots?

You would have what the researchers at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, and five other European institutes have been working on for four years; a World Wide Web-styled database called: RoboEarth.

RoboEarth is a new online, worldwide information depository.

Robots will access this depository in order to teach and learn skill sets from each other.

“The goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots,” said Dr. Ir. René van de Molengraft, project coordinator at Eindhoven University of Technology.

RoboEarth can also be thought of as a “Wikipedia for robots.”

The idea is to speedup delivery of the knowledge and skills required for a robot to carry out its tasks for hospital patient care, or for its role in supporting the growing elderly population, or for providing assistance to those in need of it at home.

As we grow older, and become more dependent on assistance while in our homes, robots will be fulfilling a variety of caretaker duties for us.

These robots would need to be able to adjust to new situations and conditions within its environment, namely, the home or facility it would be providing assistance in.

Researchers point out a person can teach (program) a robot to bring them a cup of coffee into the dining room; however, if there’s an obstacle, or the location of the dining room table or the chairs have changed, the robot may become confused, and not be able to find the person.

Robots need to tap into some universally available resource in order to obtain the necessary knowledge needed to quickly deal with any new situation or conflict they may confront.

This is where RoboEarth comes in.

When many of us come across a subject or a process we need more information about, we access the Internet and research it.

Now, robots will be able to tap into their own network information resource.

This resource will be largely contributed to, retrieved by, and shared betweenº fellow robots.

RoboEarth will be directly accessible to robots, via a wireless network.

Scientists will soon put the RoboEarth system to the test at the Eindhoven University of Technology.

There, inside a mockup of a hospital room, four robots will be using RoboEarth to complete a series of tasks. Some of these tasks include serving beverages to a patient.

These robots will work with one another, learning new skill sets and sharing them with each other via RoboEarth.

It would be interesting to look many years into the future and see the kind of information amassed in RoboEarth, and how it’s being used by the robotic intelligence community.

The word “RoboEarth” reminds me of the 1987 sci-fi movie “RoboCop.”

This caused yours truly to wonder if the intelligent robots of the future will have encrypted RoboEarth, in order to prevent humans from accessing its knowledge base.

This could make an intriguing storyline for a science fiction novel.

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