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RoboBonobo: Giving Apes Control of Their Own Robot

A robotic bonobo armed with a water cannon under the control of real bonobos? One thing's for sure: no human is safe

2 min read
RoboBonobo: Giving Apes Control of Their Own Robot

This is RoboBonobo. It's a robotic ape. It's got a water cannon on it, and it'll eventually be able to chase you around under the direct control of real bonobos wielding wireless keyboards and iPads. In other words, no human is safe. Anywhere. Ever.

The bonobos at Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, have gotten comfortable communicating with humans through the use of sequences of visual lexigrams. The apes can take advantage of a vocabulary of nearly 400 different words (like "hello" or "tickle" or "burrito"), and their human caretakers are looking to expand the ways in which the bonobos are able to interact with humans and the outside world. The humans have already built a prototype for a robot that the bonobos will be able to control directly, using it to "play chase games or squirt guests with an on board water gun."

This project goes far beyond the robot, though. What Dr. Ken Schweller (a professor of computer science and psychology and chair of the Great Ape Trust) wants to do is develop a set of Internet-connected keyboards that the bonobos can carry around with them and use to communicate directly with humans. Humans, for their part, will be able to use an app that translates their speech directly to the symbols used by the bonobos, potentially opening up real-time two-way intelligent communication between you and another species.

RoboBonobo and Bonobo Chat are trying to raise $20,000 on Kickstarter; the funds will be used to "design, program, harden, and field-test the apps with bonobo testers and to connect them to robots and other external devices." That's a little bit unspecific for such a large sum of money (although we do know that the robot in the picture above will be getting a total redesign), but at least the $500 level reward is pretty awesome: you get to have a live Skype chat session with a bonobo, completely safe from rampaging RoboBonobos with water cannons.

[ RoboBonobo ]

Thanks Ken!

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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
LightGreen

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

"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.

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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