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VOL. 121 | NO. 49 | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Artificial Intelligence Gains Momentum

New robotics center plans to develop machines to do human tasks

By Rosalind Guy

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FUTURISTIC IDEAS: Pavan Karnam, a graduate research assistant in one of the FedEx Institute of Technology's research laboratories, works on a circuit board recently. The institute soon will become home to a research center that will focus on robotics and artificial intelligence for commercial use. -- Photograph By Rosalind Guy

More than a few people probably remember watching "The Jetsons" and marveling at the wonder of having a robotic maid like Rosie the Robot or being able to get an entire three-course meal at the touch of a button.

It's still not possible to push a button and have a meal pop out fully cooked, but microwaveable dinners come close.

As for the robotic maid, the Associated Press recently reported on a humanoid robot in Japan called HRP-2 that is designed to respond to verbal instructions such as grabbing a soda from the refrigerator, turning on the television and other simple tasks.

These types of technological advances inspire the research at the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis. To that end, the institute is planing to open its robotics research center this month.

Intelligent designs

Having already received high accolades from such publications as WIRED magazine for a robotic bust with lifelike skin and changing facial expressions, FIT researchers now are on a mission to create a robotic vehicle for logistics companies like FedEx Corp.

So far, FedEx is the center's only financial backer with a one-year seed investment of $120,000.

Eric Mathews, associate director for corporate research and development at the institute and director of the new robotics center, said the idea for the center grew out of a project the institute is working on with FedEx called "yard management." It involves researching and creating an autonomous vehicle that will be able to move cargo bins on a tarmac.

The autonomous vehicle ideally would be able to travel through a warehouse, moving bins from one location to another, while sensing nearby workers to avoid injuring or killing them.

Serious business

Though on a different scale, Mathews said the work he and other researchers will do at the robotics center is similar to the research that was involved in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency competition last October in Primm, Nev.

"In a matter of weeks, we'll have a fully functioning research center doing work on this topic. We'll have a robot here, and people will start to play with robots."
- Eric Mathews
Associate director for corporate research and development at the FedEx Institute of Technology and director of the new robotics research center

Although no one from FIT entered the competition, it is considered an industry benchmark.

Challengers were required to create autonomous vehicles that could complete a predetermined course while avoiding obstacles.

Mathews said he and the other FIT researchers plan to go a step further and develop strategic plans that would allow their autonomous vehicles not just to travel a predetermined course, but to move objects from one place to another and be aware of the machines' immediate surroundings.

"We're talking about having a global view of patterns of things being moved around and what needs to go where. So you have to have global intelligence, but you also need local intelligence so that if a person steps in front of it, that person doesn't get killed," Mathews said.

Meeting of minds

Because of that, the researchers have decided to make this a five-year project.

"We had a meeting last week with some researchers starting to plot a plan for how we're going to achieve this and to also make initial orders," Mathews said. "We're kind of in the ramp-up stage where we're getting all the materials (and) starting to get the minds together thinking before we start to do the real work."

He said they expect to begin the real work in early March.

"In a matter of weeks, we'll have a fully functioning research center doing work on this topic," he said. "We'll have a robot here, and people will start to play with robots."

It remained unclear at press time how large the center will be and how many people will be involved in it.

The research center's first couple of years will be spent looking at smaller robots, experimenting with them and developing artificial intelligence and mechanical systems that can be scaled up in subsequent years. So two types of robots could evolve from this particular project.

"One of the robots will be the off-the-shelf research robot already pre-made with all the sensors," Mathews said.

The other will come from a vehicle that can navigate through the halls of FIT. Once the researchers have developed its intelligence, they will begin to outfit the navigational robot with some of the computer systems the research robot could have. Initial challenges might include controlling the gas, brakes and other mechanisms, but in time the robot will be perfected, Mathews said.

Eliminating human error

Rather than trying to create robots that someday might take the place of human workers, Mathews said these robots will become integrated into the workforce.

"It's workforce transformation - a natural evolution that will allow the robot to perform repetitive, tedious tasks and enhance workers' qualifications as they move into the arena of mechanical systems," he said.

Another advantage of the autonomous vehicles is the possibility they can actually help increase job safety for humans.

"The autonomous vehicle can provide error-proof thinking," he said.

While FedEx Corp. is the major partner for the institute in this new endeavor, Mathews said he believes that as research and development progresses, he and others at the robotics center will be able to forge partnerships with other corporations.

"The end result would be that in five years and potentially along the way, we would have demonstrations and prototypes to be applied outside of our building in real commercial implementations," he said.

Craig Grossman, interim executive director of FIT, agreed the robotics research center is continuing to go further with technological advances and, at the same time, developing partnerships within the business community that have the potential to benefit society as a whole.

"We provide new thinking, new technologies and then support societal adoption," he said. "With future projects like robotics, we throw the flag down the field and then run for it in partnership with others."

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