Skip to main content: Artificial intelligence laboratory, University of Zurich – Hello, my name is Roboy

Artificial intelligence laboratory, University of ZurichHello, my name is Roboy

He is 130 centimeters tall and could certainly star in a science-fiction movie. His big innocent eyes, on the other hand, are reminiscent of Japanese anime comics. In reality, he is a humanoid robot from the artificial intelligence laboratory at the University of Zurich. Project manager Adrian Burri introduces us to Roboy in our interview.

31. May 2013

Mr. Burri, can you tell us who or what Roboy is?

Roboy is a humanoid robot, which means he is similar to humans and has the same anatomy and movement mechanisms as humans. We have bones, joints and move via tendons and muscles. We've reconstructed this principle for Roboy and have also given him imitation muscles. These consist of a tendon and an electric motor that shortens or lengthens it. The construction time for Roboy was nine months – the same duration as a pregnancy. Was that deliberate? No, it wasn't intentional. In May and June last year the idea to build Roboy came about – with the goal of presenting him at „Robots on Tour“ in March 2013. We figured out how much time we had, and as it turned out, it would take nine months – very appropriate. The ECCEROBOT project (the predecessor of Roboy) was an EU-funded scheme with a much longer development time. For Roboy, we went ahead without first conducting a research project. We wanted to prove that a robot of this kind could be realized in the shortest possible time, provided you have the right partners.

„The idea was to build a tendon-controlled humanoid robot in nine months. That would make a good story. It really made an impact and showed how effective the right story can be.“

Why did your team build the robot in such a short time?

There were several reasons for this. First of all there was the fair, „Robots on Tour“, which had been organized to mark the occasion of the laboratory for artificial intelligence's 25th anniversary. This fair brought together humanoid robots from all over the world and showed a wide audience the current state of the art in robotics and the various topics that are being researched. And there was a specific focus on humanoid rather than industrial robots. With Roboy, the artificial intelligence laboratory has developed a flagship product. We also brought 1zu1 Prototypes on board at a very early stage.

How would you describe your partnership with 1zu1 on this project?

They were very important from the start, with 1zu1 Prototypes we were able to build Roboy in the way we had envisaged in terms of the design. Without 1zu1, it wouldn't have been possible to construct the same type of free-form and design-oriented surfaces in this short time frame. The head, for example, is a very large, semi-transparent shell. If we'd had to produce this using traditional methods, we would have run out of time or been forced to choose a different shape. Naturally, rapid prototyping processes are great here as you can give the design a very high priority.

And, from 1zu1's perspective, was the project equally appealing?

1zu1: It was very interesting for us because there was a learning phase about Roboy's „bones“ and superstructures, how they were constructed and how we could then really manufacture them as a prototype. We wanted them to work the way the customer had envisaged. With the sintering technique a lot is possible, you can build parts-in-parts; we learned a lot about this and the collaboration with the developers was very interesting. Of course there were challenges, the hand and the foot are very complex parts, we had to work very well together and tinker somewhat to make them work, also the head and eyes required several attempts with different surface finishes to ensure the eyes were free of distortion. Several samples were produced before we arrived at the solution.

Is Zurich is an international center for artificial intelligence?

Adrian Burri: Yes, it's all based on the work of Professor Pfeifer. He founded the laboratory for artificial intelligence in Zurich 25 years ago and immediately began networking internationally. He was instrumental in understanding what artificial intelligence is and introduced the concept of embodiment. Intelligence is always connected to the body and is an interaction with the environment. He has published many publications on this subject and undertaken groundbreaking research projects.

What is the relationship between intelligence and the body in Roboy?

The current Roboy is still a far cry from what artificial intelligence is. Roboy is currently more of a body, the intelligence will follow. We have built Roboy and now we want to figure out how to program it to think for itself. It has all the senses this requires: haptics, optics and a physical body.

The new Swedish science-fiction series Real Humans deals with the coexistence of humans and robots – in a world in which they can clean, shop, work and even become our lovers. Will this soon become reality?

This is certainly one of the important application areas in humanoid robotics. A robot must be safe, it must not cause fear, especially in a nursing role. You have to fundamentally accept that a robot can take care of a patient, bring them food, take care of their personal hygiene, etc. Once this acceptance exists, service robots will certainly have great potential in the future. In Japan they're already much further ahead because the Japanese seem to have a more open approach to robotics than us Europeans.

„Service robotics will surely come, in the next five to ten years. The discussion is, however, what kind of robots these will be, e.g., in geriatric care. It's all about technology that will help to ensure people's independence for as long as possible.“

Are service robots also cheaper than human service providers?

Yes and no. Purchasing the equipment is relatively expensive, it requires a lot of AI and sensor technology, but compared to personnel costs or the issue of what human staff can actually do when they're off duty, service robots can definitely be economical. Service robots should not replace people, but rather supplement and unburden them. The human staff can then take better care of the patients.

How will the Roboy project proceed in concrete terms?

We've built something that reaches the limits of what is technically possible. There now comes a transition to research with Roboy. Roboy is a platform on which a range of topics can be explored. This research is taking place at various institutes, at the University of Zurich and the Technical University of Munich, and various discussions are underway. However, Roboy is still a long way away from commercial use.

Turning back to the relationship between 1zu1 and the project. What was your relationship with industry like in general?

The project had the potential to attract the interest of industry because it had to be completed within a short time frame. The scientists involved are actually unaware of many of the state-of-the-art aspects – they're focused on one research topic and can't also know everything about drive technology or the latest RP manufacturing processes. In this way, we brought on board many partners with specialist knowledge and were able to integrate cutting-edge knowledge and technologies. This involved some excellent networking and the interaction of all parties was very successful.

And did this project provide an innovative boost for 1zu1?

1zu1: Clearly a project of this kind is very exciting, for the sales department, but also for the employees in the workshop the project was highly motivating. They saw the parts of Roboy's moving hand in the workshop and were totally excited to be involved in this project. „What an incredible design, a super designer,“ were just some of the comments we heard. We made a very special effort because our name is on it.

Is Roboy an open-source project?

Adrian Burri: Yes, exactly. The problems involved also affect many other people, so Roboy is intended to be a platform that various institutes around the world can access to research this topic. This means that scientists can use the mechanics we have developed.

Adrian Burri, CEO of Konzeptagentur GmbH, was the project manager for the Roboy project. The interview was conducted by Hermann Braendle. 


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