Students bring robots to life in new IST class

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Adam Abbott, a senior at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), was recently feeling a little apprehensive. He was nervous that Nao, a 58-centimeter tall humanoid social robot, would falter during the brief dance that Abbott and his fellow students programmed it to perform for their final demonstration in IST 402: Human-Robot Interactions this past fall. Abbott’s group had programmed the robot to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” for their presentation but had run into some problems during trial runs. Fortunately, during the demonstration, the dance went off without a hitch.

“I think it went better than expected,” Abbott said, adding that the most difficult parts were coordinating the robot’s side-stepping and arm movement. “Programming Nao is like narrating a story.”

Nao is an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot developed by Aldebaran Robotics, a French robotics company headquartered in Paris. The robot's development began with the launch of Project Nao in 2004. Nao robots have been used for research and education purposes in numerous academic institutions worldwide. As of 2015, more than 5,000 Nao units are in use in more than 50 countries.

The Human-Robot Interactions course, taught by John Yen, professor and director of strategic research initiatives at IST, was offered for the first time during the fall 2015 semester as a result of a $9,000 internal grant. The objective of the course is for students to learn about human-robot interactions through hands-on experience, with a focus on a humanoid social robot (Nao).

In the class, students learn how to design interactions with the robot using a visual programming interface. For the final, the students form teams that demonstrate the robot performing tasks such as carrying on a conversation, identifying predefined signs, picking up a ball and recognizing a face. Some teams took creative liberties within these themes and programmed Nao to do such novel activities as lifting a barbell and performing dance routines.

“I was really thrilled with what the students were able to do,” Yen said. “Many of the teams went beyond my expectations.”

Kaley Chicoine, a student in the course, said that her team programmed Nao to “recognize a bunch of different faces at once” and call the team members by name. Nao has 26 different motors that move its joints in different ways, she said, and is aware of where its body is in relation to self. “We kind of focused the whole project around our dialogue,” she said, adding that they programmed the robot to perform a routine in response to their verbal commands.

While robots dancing and talking may be entertaining, Chicoine said that the skills learned in the class can be transferred to non-academic settings. As a social robot, Nao is being used to care for the elderly and teach math and other skills to autistic children.

“[The autistic children] can connect better with the robot because it’s less overwhelming and intimidating for them than dealing with people,” Chicoine said.

While robots may be able to replace humans in some capacities, such as automated jobs and dangerous tasks like defusing bombs, Yen said current technology doesn’t support a futuristic, science fiction-type of self-awareness in machines. For example, robots cannot reason instinctively the way humans do.

“People learn common sense over time,” Yen said. “We don’t have technology like that at this point.”

By taking the Human-Robot Interactions course, the students are exposed to technology that will continue to have an impact on society. The underlying technology of Nao is related to artificial intelligence, which is driving innovations such as the Google self-driving car.

The class’s emphasis on human-robot interactions, according to Yen, fits in with the College of IST’s mission of leveraging the interplay of information, technology and humans.

“We are using robots as a basis to think about the broader interactions between people and technology," he said.

Last Updated February 05, 2016