Robots inch into daily life

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:00 08/01/2014
chch robots
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/FAIRFAX NZ
ROBO-RESEARCH: Canterbury University’s HitLab is building a human-scale robot for its research on robot-human interaction. PhD student Eduardo Sandoval models facial components of InMoov.

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Robots will be helping in our homes, workplaces and schools in about a decade, and amateurs will be able to build their own, a Canterbury University robot researcher says.

A human-sized robot called InMoov being built at the university's Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HitLab) will help scientists assess how people interact with their mechanical counterparts before they inevitably become part of daily life.

PhD student Eduardo Sandoval, 33, predicts that in 10 years robots will be commonplace in New Zealand and as useful as computers are now.

"We believe that in the same way, robots are going to be present in homes, offices and schools helping humans like a personal assistant."

Sandoval, who was recently awarded a medal from the National University of Mexico for his study on robots, agreed it was a "crazy" thought, but "it's only a matter of time".

Japanese scientists were already designing robots to offer information in public places, look after children and assist elderly people living alone. It was likely New Zealand would have a need for them too because of its ageing population.

"Technology is changing fast now and it's quite hard to predict what is the next step."

The robots could clean the house, help with administration tasks and check and respond to emails following its operator's voice commands.

Current technology meant robots could fetch a beer from the fridge, but more work was needed to make the task quicker and less arduous, Sandoval said.

The life-like size of the robot was important in researching their interaction with humans, since the smaller robots more frequently on the market were treated more like "cute babies" or pets.

Soon, anyone would be able to build their own using technology, electronics and commercial blueprints.

"Anyone with a 3D printer now can print his own robot and develop them.

Professor Mark Billinghurst and Associate Professor Christoph Bartneck were leading the research, and while InMoov only had a torso so far, it could talk, move in complex ways, recognise voices and had several in-built cameras.

While robots became increasingly sophisticated, his "novel kind of research" was important to monitor human reaction to them and was a chance for New Zealand to develop an export industry, he said. "We should try to develop good behaviours for the robots that allow them to be accepted."

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One of the Government's 10 National Scientific Challenges announced this year included robotic development, he said.

Organisers of RoboCup, the world cup of robotic soccer, predicted they would have a team of robots beat a team of humans by 2050.

- The Press

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