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Robots Are Getting Smarter. Meet The People Who Are Making Them More Human

28 SEP 2018

This is one of six stories done in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Find out more about their amazing research and scientists.

Although rovers on Mars, and spacecraft exploring the Solar System seem to have it tough, according to robotics professor Jonathan Roberts, the hardest thing for a robot to learn how to do is tidy your house.

He's at the forefront of making helpful or interesting robot technology, from medical and healthcare robots, to robots that can dance with human performers.

"I do a lot of work in performance robots, so robots for shows. And I'm the co-leader for the medical robotics group at QUT. We have a large group that focuses on surgical robots," says Roberts, in an interview with ScienceAlert.

Jonathan Roberts 3Jonathan Roberts (QUT)

He also works on "an area called design robotics, which is using robots for art and design, and the manufacture of artwork."

Although surgery can sometimes seem routine (if a little scary), there are definitely some surgeries that are still harder and more frustrating for the surgeon than they have to be.

"We're working on a class of robots that'll be used in minimally invasive orthopaedic surgery – so that's surgery of the bones, and particularly joint surgery," Roberts explained.

One particular surgery that Roberts' team is working on is looking at knee surgery, which has a surprisingly high chance of not going to plan.

"When you're asleep on the table, they'll pick your leg up, put your foot on their hip, and bend your knee up. Basically contorting the knee slightly to make space for the instruments and the camera," says Roberts.

"It's very difficult, because they are literally holding a leg and while carrying around all this equipment, and they have foot pedals to control stuff. They will quite commonly accidently damage the patient's cartilage."

The researchers did a study to look at how often this happens, and 50 percent of surgeons admitted to the accidental damage of cartilage in 1 in 10 patients. The surgeons also risk hurting themselves in these precarious angles.

This research is still in in its infant stages, but it could open door to a number of other surgery robots.

This is just one of the ways that his team is bringing robots and humans closer together.

"Often people think that the complicated robotics problems are things like space missions and military, but it turns out that they are easy compared to having a robot dance with a human performer on stage," says Roberts.

"We always joke that the most complicated thing you could ever get a robot to do would be tidy your house."

But why? Well humans are complicated creatures. We like our spoons in one draw, the kids' toys in another.

"A robot would have to understand everything about the objects [in your house], and understand what's out of place," says Roberts.

RobotGrip web(QUT)

That doesn't even bring into consideration how hard it is for robots to grasp certain objects. "Everything about it is super hard."

Although self-driving cars manufacturers might want you to think otherwise, a lot of robotics research is still in early, yet exciting stages.

"We would expect robots, just as we expect humans, to respond to different objects depending on what they are," explains Dr Sue Keay, the Chief Operating Officer at the QUT-headquartered Australian Centre for Robotic Vision to ScienceAlert.

Sue Keay cropDr Sue Keay (QUT)

"You wouldn't expect a robot to treat you the same way as it treats a chair, but we're not at that level of understanding. So that's where we're really pushing the boundaries."

Although a robot might understand that there's a difference, it's much harder than you'd think for a robot to determine what that actually means.

"We think the fundamental limitation is that robots haven't been able to interpret the visual data that they have around them in the way humans do. Once they can understand that information, then they can start making intelligent decisions about how they operate in the world, which will make them safer and more useful for people," Keay added.

So what does this mean for the future of robotics and the people who build them?

"I think that we're going to see a lot more robots out and about in the world amongst us, and for them to really have a transformative and positive impact on people's lives we need a whole range of diverse people involved in their development," says Keay.

We're excited to see what happens next - dancing robots and all.

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