Robots for Real: Lessons From a Mechanical Child

A child humanoid robot called iCub is helping Swiss scientists study cognition, learning, and mobility

3 min read

This segment is part of "Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real."

In this special report, we meet some of the world’s most creative minds in robotics to find out how their robots will transform our lives—for real. “Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real,” a coproduction of IEEE Spectrum magazine and the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, aired on public radio stations across the United States.

Hosted by Susan Hassler and Ken Goldberg
Senior editor: Erico Guizzo

Robots for Real: Lessons From a Mechanical Child


Reported by Giselle Weiss

Giselle Weiss: A baby is a great explorer. Infants gnaw, lick, grab, prod, and crawl their way into awareness of the world and of themselves. But how do they do it? That's the question posed by RobotCub, an initiative whose goal is to study cognitive function by building a humanoid, childlike robot, known as iCub. The project is funded by the European Union and involves 10 academic partners. So far, eight robots have been built. Here at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne—EPFL for short—researchers are working on systems that control iCub's upper and lower body.

Giselle Weiss: Auke Ijspeert heads the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group at the EPFL. He and his coworkers specialize in locomotion. They're programming the robot to get from A to B not on two limbs but on four—by crawling, as an infant does. It's no easy feat.

Auke Ijspeert: If you have a wheeled robot, it's very simple to control its locomotion. But if you have a humanoid robot, you have to move maybe, say, seven joints in each leg plus seven joints in the arm, so that means 28 joints that you have to coordinate properly.

Giselle Weiss: Full-fledged iCub robots were developed in 2004. Before that, the scientists used computers to explore principles like gravity and friction that are important in crawling. Then they tested simple arm movements on an existing robot by having it pound a drum.

Giselle Weiss: Eventually, in 2008, a robot with legs became available in Genoa, Italy, and one of Ijspeert's students took it for a crawl.

Giselle Weiss: The robot moved a little clumsily and even bruised its arms. But the scientists are helping iCub to clean up its crawling technique.

Auke Ijspeert: Something we haven't done yet so far is dealing with complex terrain. So, for instance, going up or down a sofa, or going down stairs, climbing up stairs. These are very complex problems, also in terms of visual processing.

Giselle Weiss: Several buildings away, Ijspeert's colleague Aude Billard is also working on iCub. Billard, who leads EPFL's Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory, is out of the country, and her student Eric Sauser shows me around. The robot is anchored vertically to a workbench, apparently snoozing.

Giselle Weiss: The researchers are interested in three major questions: How does the brain build a model of its own body? How do you coordinate the motion of your eyes, head, and arms to reach an object? And how do you use that information to learn from imitating somebody else? Sauser straps some sensors to his left arm and hand and powers up iCub. As he moves his arm and fingers, the robot does likewise. Like us, it has an opposable thumb, which enables it to grasp objects and release them.

Eric Sauser: We had a screwdriver before. That may be a bit scary, a robot with a screwdriver. But I'm confident, since it's me that controls the robot. So here the robot got the screwdriver. He can move it around in the air, hit the floor.

Giselle Weiss: The scientists will also study the kind of nonverbal information we can only get through touching, as when a tennis coach lifts the elbow of a player to correct a stroke. Eventually, Billard and Ijspeert hope to combine their efforts to study more complex gestures. But, as Ijspeert explains, that's still a while off.

Auke Ijspeert: We are now just at the beginning, in terms of the software. So now we have a nice robot. But there's much more work to do in terms of really addressing questions of what it means to have some artificial intelligence.

Giselle Weiss: Perhaps someday, like any kid, iCub will be able to clean its room or to play Ping-Pong with you. For now, it's not half bad on the foot-pedal drums.

Giselle Weiss: In Lausanne, Switzerland, I'm Giselle Weiss.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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