Awesomely Bad Ideas: Teaching a Robot to Sword Fight

Georgia Tech has given a robot a sword and told it that humans are out to get it, all in the name of safety

2 min read
Awesomely Bad Ideas: Teaching a Robot to Sword Fight

In a paper presented this week at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai, Georgia Tech researcher Tobias Kunz starts thusly: "In order to deploy safe and flexible robots for service and automation, robots must act safely in close contact with humans." Accompanying this innocuous first sentence is this picture:

human robot sword fight

You're probably wondering, at this point, just what the heck a robot with a sword has to do with safety of all things. And why do people keep giving swords to robots anyway? There was Hubo II dancing with one last year, and just three days ago we saw two industrial manipulators dueling with lightsabers.

As it turns out, Kunz says that one good way to get a robot to be dynamically safe around humans is to just program it to think of humans as adversaries. Huh? You may still be wondering why giving a robot a sword and teaching it to think of humans as bad guys is somehow a good thing, but bear with me.

On a fundamental level, a lot of what sword fighting is about is predicting the intentions of a human and then deciding how to respond. By teaching a robot to defensively (just defensively, mind you) block incoming sword attacks, the idea is to create a general model that robots can use to react quickly and safely around the unpredictable movements of nearby humans.

Plus, come on, it's just awesome. Here's a simulation of the work in progress:

So far, the sword fighting is only taking place in a computer, but as you can see from the pic, Georgia Tech does apparently have a real robot that's capable of wielding a real(ish) sword. Letting this thing loose against a pack of real-life ninjas is clearly the next logical step.

Kunz did the work with colleagues Peter Kingston, Mike Stilman, and Magnus Egerstedt, and their ICRA paper was titled, "Dynamic Chess: Strategic Planning for Robot Motion."


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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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