At first glance it looks like a minifridge with eyes like saucers, moving slowly along the sidewalks of Stanford University in California. A more careful look reveals the tangle of wires and lights on his back. This is JackRabbot, a prototype messenger robot, which does not go unnoticed when he goes for a walk around the campus to gather information about human behavior on the street. JackRabbot can smile and put eyes through an LED screen and also gives way and patiently waits to cross the road.
"It's the first friendly robot," smiles Roberto Martin-Martin, who accompanies JackRabbot wherever the little droid goes when he goes for a walk. Roberto is a Spanish postdoctoral fellow in Stanford's Robotics department and his research focuses primarily on learning the artificial intelligence applied to human behavior. JackRabbot is one of the many projects that Roberto works on, but for now it is the one that has received the most attention from the media, due to the efforts of the researchers to provide a more sympathetic appearance to this android.
"We thought it would be better to have more round shapes, big eyes, so that people would not say, ah, it's just a machine," says the researcher, while watching that JackRabbot does not go too far. "There were some similar cases from other studies with robots in which people kicked them. If they seem too robotic, they generate rejection and if they seem too human, they generate uneasiness, this is what is called the disturbing valley. "This disturbing valley (uncanny valley, in English) is the hypothesis in robotics that explains that a very humanoid robot generates a strong rejection reaction, in some cases even to the repulsion.
To avoid falling into these two categories, the creators of JackRabbot decided to give a virtual big eyes, which thanks to 360 sensors, can detect the looks and turn the head (in your case, a screen). Precisely the reason of being of JackRabbot is that, to interact with human beings to learn from them.
"Our research focuses mainly on the algorithms we have designed for the robot to learn how people move around them, if they let them pass, when they let them pass, how they react to them, etc," explains Roberto. This information collected by JackRabbot goes through the sieve of its algorithms and is then used by the robot to circulate on the street.
"It has to be socially intelligent in situations where there are large agglomerations, that's our focus with JackRabbot," the researcher says when asked about the main difference with other delivery robots. "The exterior of the robot does not worry us, we want to create algorithms that can understand and to a certain extent, anticipate, our behavior in public spaces."
In a way, this is the holy grail of robotics, at least in the messaging area. For a while, several companies in the United States have launched this adventure with mini robots that can load almost a kilo. One of the first companies is called Kiwi, whose fleet of small robots is being tested at the University of California, Berkeley. The interactions with humans so far They have passed without problems, but the solution of the Kiwi robots happens to brake before the potholes, instead of dodging them while it circulates.
"These algorithms of other delivery robots do not usually put so much emphasis on the movement of human beings. We are educating JackRabbot so that he can circulate even on land he does not recognize, just as a person would, "says Roberto.
The name of JackRabbot was given to him a couple of years ago, when one of the researchers who participated in the initial project, thought it would be funny to call him hares (jackrabbits, in English) that jump around the Stanford campus.
For now, this very civic robot is still in development and according to Roberto it will not be ready until at least five more years. That in terms of their interaction on the street, since a few months ago they also added an arm with which they could, in the near future, open the door to other people and pick up objects.
"This is like with self-directed cars, if you define autonomous navigation we are very close to achieving it with this robot, but a robot that, for example, will clean your houseI think we are still quite far away, "says Roberto. "The reason lies in the level of skill: navigating is simpler, but manipulating objects, picking them up and moving them is more complicated, we study both tasks."
Among the applications of a robot like this, in addition to the cast, it should also be noted that it could be very useful for surveillance, as a guide, to help invalids and older people to move, removing obstacles from the road that facilitate the passage.
Roberto studied Telecommunications Engineering in Spain, a Master of Science and a PhD in Philosophy in Berlin and made the leap to the United States a little more than a year ago to do his post-doctorate at the Stanford Vision and Learning Laboratory. Apart from this project, he also works in the same laboratory with other robots related to manipulates