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Albert is not happy

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How robots learn to live with people – By Ulrich Hottelet

Even if they do not look it, robots are becoming ever more human. German engineers and manufacturers are striving to create ever more complex and intelligent systems.

Robots are only human, one might think while watching the facial expressions and listening to the remarks of Albert, a museum robot. “Lots of people here,” he says, and – with the corners of his mouth drooping – guides them through the crowded exhibition. Albert is clearly not happy.

His creator, Wolfram Burgard, professor of computer science at Freiburg University and head of the research lab for Autonomous Intelligent Systems, received the prestigious Leibniz Prize from the German Research Foundation (DFG) in March for his research on improving the orientation abilities of mobile robots. “They have a special way of interpreting the data picked up by their sensors and then taking action,” said Burgard. “The goal is to build robots that can navigate reliably in our world.”

A key factor is the ability of the “human machines” to recognize obstacles. To do that, they must understand and learn to interpret camera images. Albert must incorporate mistakes and learn from experience in order to know when to stop before hitting an obstacle – a visitor in the museum, for instance.

This kind of complex system is the way of the future, said Stefan Sagert, head of robotics at the VDMA engineering association. He believes technical advances are making human-robot interactivity more interesting, especially for small and midsize businesses. “Innovative safety ideas have been developed lately, especially in the area of sensors and industrial imaging,” Sagert said. “The robot can recognize skin; then it stops and moves back. That means the robot no longer has to be behind a safety barrier – now it can work together with people.”

Johannes Lemburg, a researcher at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in Bremen is more skeptical. “The more complex the system, the more vulnerable it is to error,” he said. “So I see complexity as a trend only where it is being forced.”

Cleaning robots, for instance, will be possible only in the distant future, said Lemburg, because for the moment they remain too expensive. The same goes for robots used to care for the elderly. “Because they have to act like humans, they are more complex to build than robots that are used in space,” he said. Lemburg believes the majority of intelligent autonomous systems in the future will continue to be used in industry and not, for example, in private households.

But already, robots are playing a role across a broad spectrum of sectors and industries. It stretches from the classic auto production-line jobs of welding and assembly to loading and unloading in the field of logistics, to monitoring functions in the area of security technology, to milking robots in cowsheds and robots operating on patients in hospitals. Optimists point out that our electronic helpers’ growing ability to learn makes them easier to operate, and that the line between industrial and service robots is slowly dissolving.

They say that service robots will become more affordable as robots become more common in industry. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), one million industrial robots are in operation today and 5.5 million service robots are in use on water, land and in the air. By the end of 2011, the IFR says, there will be 1.2 million industrial robots and 17 million service robots at work around the world.

Japan has the highest degree of automation, with 310 industrial robots per 10,000 workers in its various production industries. Germany comes next with 234, followed by South Korea at 185 and Italy and the U.S. each at 116. The auto manufacturing industry has by far the highest number of robots.

For German robotics manufacturers, 2008 was a record year. Their sales rose 15 percent to €2.4 billion. But with more than half its business conducted with customers abroad, the sector is highly vulnerable to the world’s shaken economic climate. As a result, the VDMA is predicting a 5 percent drop in sales for 2009.

But VDMA robotics and automation chairman Norbert Stein is taking a positive line. “In recent years, German companies have profited much more than their foreign competition from growing demand worldwide for automation technology,” he said. “They have done their homework and are entering this downturn more resilient than they did for instance in the 1990s.” The IFR, too, believes the current downturn will only be a short-term blip and is forecasting annual growth in the industry of 4 percent until 2011.

For the moment, one of the leading German manufacturers, KUKA, has been faced with a collapse in sales over the past few months. CEO Horst Kayser is trying to avoid laying off workers. He is hoping that cutting overtime and not using outside workers will do the trick but is not ruling out shorter hours and shorter pay. The Augsburg-based company earns 70 percent of its €1.3 billion of sales to the ailing auto industry. Carmakers’ investment in KUKA electronic systems has fallen by 20 percent. In industrial engineering, sales have fallen by 44 percent. With numbers like that, even Robot Albert’s mouth would sag.