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A Robot That Reads Your Mind?

Researchers program automatons to anticipate human needs

FRIDAY, June 12 (HealthDay News) -- European researchers say they have developed a robot that anticipates a human's needs.

The robots, built by members of the European Commission's Joint-Action Science and Technology project, were programmed to help a person put together a complicated toy. Because the robot knows the toy-building process, it observes the person's actions, such as what part the person is holding, and deduces what it can do to help, such as locating the proper tool needed for assembly.

"The robots observe behavior, map it against the task and quickly learn to anticipate [partner actions] or spot errors when the partner does not follow the correct or expected procedure," one of the researchers, Wolfram Erlhagen of the University of Minho in Portugal, said in a news release from the commission.

This development could lead to robots that act more like human companions -- making decisions by anticipating or questioning actions rather than just mimicking or repeating pre-programmed instructions.

The scientists relied on previous research that found people have "mirror neurons" in the brain that try to understand an activity when observing someone doing it. During this process, the brain actually records what another person is doing so it can repeat it or find a complementary action.

"Our tests were to see whether the human and robot could coordinate their work," Erlhagen said. "Would the robot know what to do next without being told?"

The scientists programmed the robots to deal with possible mistakes by asking their human partners to clarify their intentions if their actions might have multiple conclusions. For example, if a particular toy piece could be used in several ways, the robot would ask what the partner planned to construct.

"Our robot has a neural architecture that mimics the resonance processing that our human studies showed take place during joint actions," Erlhagen said. "The link between the human psychology, experimentation and the robotics is very close."

More information

The JAST project has more about its robotics projects.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: European Commission, news release, June 5, 2009

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