Enter the Kung Fu-bot

Throughout history, man has used martial arts to attain some form of enlightenment, but now it seems that they’re being used to further the ‘personal’ development of a robot.

While the ability to simultaneously dispatch five of your worst enemies with a ‘monkey king’s wolf blow’ is an enviable skill, most martial arts are primarily focussed on human spiritual development.

Throughout history, man has used martial arts to attain some form of enlightenment, but now it seems that they’re being used to further the ‘personal’ development of a robot.

As part of the ATR Cyberhuman project in Kyoto, Japan, a humanoid robot known as DB is being taught to play the tai chi game of sticky hands, an exercise in which two partners maintain gentle hand contact while moving. The aim is for each partner to learn how to act in a way that maintains harmony between the two persons. The ability to respond naturally involves adopting the appropriate balances in oneself, at any particular time, in order to maintain harmony.

To involve the robot in the game presents a number of interesting motion and motor control issues. The robot must be capable of moving while remaining compliant to contact forces from a human, as well as being able to mimic the motion patterns of humans playing the game.

In order to play the game, the robot attempts to maintain contact with its human partner’s hand with minimum force. The point of contact is continually observed and paths recorded. The robot learns trajectories of the contact point and is capable of generalising observed paths for the prediction of new and different paths. In this way it may synchronise its motions with those of the human while permitting the paths to evolve freely over time. The learning algorithm records instantaneous samples of the trajectory and stores them in a voxel array. It operates with parameterisable time and memory bounds.

The findings of this bizarre project will, claims Glasgow University’s Josh Hale, firstly ‘encourage people to feel comfortable interacting physically and cooperatively with the robot’ and teach us some valuable lessons about how robots can be taught to ‘usefully coexist in our living and working places.’