Who Needs Real Friends When Robots Will Play Nintendo With You

Japanese researchers teach a little humanoid how to play Wii tennis

2 min read
Who Needs Real Friends When Robots Will Play Nintendo With You
Image: University of Tsukuba

For those of us who have no friends, we at least have video games. And thanks to artificial intelligence, the computer-controlled adversaries we play against are always getting better. Most games aren’t at the point where the AI can give a skilled human serious competition without having the playing field tilted in its direction, but that’s okay, because we still derive pleasure and satisfaction from beating them anyway.

What AI is missing is physical embodiment. You know, something that you can scream at when you lose and gloat over when you win. The little humanoid NAO fills that role nicely, and researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan have taught the robot to play Wii Tennis, with a Wiimote and all.

NAO is actually playing the game, although it’s not using onboard visual processing to do it. The video output from the Nintendo Wii is passed through a computer that does all of the heavy lifting, recognizing the locations of the players and changing its strategy accordingly. The computer then sends control signals to NAO, which performs pre-designed gestures, just like a human player does.

What’s the point of all this when you could just play against the built-in AI in a game? By using an AI that’s not a part of the game, you can upgrade it yourself, and (hypothetically) use the same robot to play a whole bunch of different games. The robot can learn how you play, what you like, and what you hate, and use this knowledge to challenge and/or frustrate you. Perhaps more important, if you have a cool video game-playing robot at home, you can bet that lots of people will want to be your friend.

“Gaming Humanoids for Facilitating Social Interaction Among People,” by Junya Hirose, Masakazu Hirokawa, and Kenji Suzuki from University of Tsukuba in Japan, was presented at the 2015 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

[ HRI 2015 ]

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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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