Robots Learn Language to Navigate Tough Situations
Linguist Jeff Heinz and mechanical engineer Bert Tanner are teaching robots about cooperative behavior, by observing how children learn to communicate and how adults learn new languages.
Credit: NSF

Equipping robots with language and learning capabilities could take some of the heat off human handlers, enabling the robots to navigate tough tasks in small groups.

The ability to communicate with others could help the robots in dangerous situations, where they can work in teams to navigate building fires or other disasters. If they can learn and communicate with each other, they could take action without needing a human to give commands.

Now, University of Delaware researchers are designing robot language and learning capabilities based on the complex rules that human language follows. They are teaching robots to communicate using their own kind of sentences, which string together actions the robot performs in a certain order; for example, the robot can't drop a ball until it has first picked on up.

"So a robot's 'sentence' in a sense, is just a sequence of actions that it is conducting," said Jeffrey Heinz, a linguist at the University of Delaware. "And there will be constraints on the kinds of sequences of actions that a robot can do."

Communication between robots gives them an ability to learn about their environments and other robots, if they catalogue this incoming information. "We would like to make the robots adaptive — learn about their environment and reconfigure themselves based on the knowledge they acquire," explains researcher Bret Tanner, also of the University of Delaware.

Each robot would have different abilities and follow a different set of rules, so the robots could work together to accomplish tasks.Each robot would play to its talents and strengths. Ultimately, the robots will need to be aware of their own capabilities, those of the other robots around them and the overall goal of their mission.

"We have eyes that see, ears that hear and we have fingers that touch. We don’t have a 'universal sensory organ,'" Heinz said. "Likewise in the robotics world, we're not going to design a universal robot that's going to be able to do anything and everything."

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