Being able to send robots to Mars to build a habitat that humans could eventually call home is an exciting idea. Unfortunately, as with robots here on Earth, the main problem is how to successfully tell our mechanical friends exactly what to do. After all, robots aren’t fully autonomous—yet.
Now, a Tokyo-based startup called SE4 has developed software that will improve communication between humans on Earth and spacefaring robots, as Futurism reports. These robots might one day travel to Mars to ready the red planet for human habitation. Even cooler is the fact that the robot receives instructions by mimicking the movements of humans on Earth.
Robotics engineers are constantly trying to improve robot independence. On Earth, autonomy problems can pretty much always be remedied with human intervention. However, sending instructions to Mars takes from three to 24 minutes. This is because of the fluctuating distance between Earth and Mars. A lot can happen, even in three minutes, in an unpredictable, inhospitable environment like that of the red planet.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is where SE4’s new tech comes in. At the recent SIGGRAPH innovation conference in Los Angeles, SE4 used its new software to control an industrial arm from Universal Robotics, adorably dubbed “Squeezie.” SE4 research engineer Nathan Quinn used a VR headset and handheld controls to “teach” Squeezie what to do. The machine then was able to stack and arrange a number of blocks. Naturally, the exhibition drew the largest crowd the company has ever seen.
What makes this technology promising for directing robot workers on Mars is that the bots can receive a complete set of exact instructions. In this way, a robot can carry out a task much faster than older methods of communication. Furthermore, the human operator can help the robot discern what objects it needs to manipulate. Humans label the germane objects using SE4’s “Sematic Control”.
“A robot can scan its environment and give [raw data] to us, but it can’t necessarily identify the objects around it and what they mean,” says SE4 CEO Lochlainn Wilson. In other words, a human can indicate the difference between a piece of building material and a rock because that is something robots can’t understand just yet.
A Perfect Marriage
The new software doesn’t make the robots fully autonomous. However, it gives them the tools to work much faster at longer distances. “We’re not letting it do absolutely everything,” says Quinn. “Our robot is good at moving an object from point A to point B, but it doesn’t know the overall plan.”
This marriage between human intelligence and artificial intelligence is key. It allows robots to finish their tasks on Mars without sending excruciatingly slow and possibly confusing information to them. “[It] lets humans do what they’re good at, while robots do what they do best,” Quinn added.
Ultimately, the startup is working on a futuristic example of the age-old adage: show, don’t tell.