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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

iCub Humanoid Robot Just Like a Baby

Air Date: Week of

iCub learns like a small child. (Basilio Noris)

It crawls, it grabs, it even pounds a drum. A childlike robot designed by European scientists is made to study the learning process. IEEE Spectrum’s Giselle Weiss reports.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Researchers at eleven European laboratories are building a robot designed to imitate a small child. Each lab has an exact copy of the same kid-bot. Scientists want to study how it learns, then they’ll share what they learn. Reporter Giselle Weiss visited one of the labs in Switzerland, and filed this report for the IEEE Spectrum Magazine and National Science Foundation series, “Robots for Real.”


WEISS: A baby is a great explorer. Infants gnaw, lick, grab, prod, and crawl their way into awareness of the world and of themselves. But how do they do it? That’s the question posed by RobotCub, an initiative whose goal is to study cognitive function by building a humanoid, childlike robot, known as iCub.

Here at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne – EPFL for short – researchers are working on systems that control iCub’s upper and lower body.


Auke Ijspeert led the team that programmed the iCub. (Basilio Noris)

WEISS: Auke Ijspeert heads the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group at the EPFL. He and his co-workers specialize in locomotion. They’re programming the robot to get from A to B not on two limbs, but on four - by crawling, as an infant does. It’s no easy feat.

IJSPEERT: If you have wheeled robot, it’s very simple to control its locomotion - you have two wheels, you set the speed of the two wheels and then adjust both speed and direction. But if you have a humanoid robot, you have to move maybe, let's say, seven joints in each leg plus seven joints in the arm - so that means twenty-eight joints that you have coordinate properly.

WEISS: Full-fledged iCub robots were developed in 2004. Before that, the scientists used computers to explore principles like gravity and friction that are important in crawling. Then they tested simple arm movements on an existing robot by having it pound a drum.


WEISS: Eventually, in 2008, a robot with legs became available in Genoa, Italy, and one of Ijspeert’s students took it for a crawl.


WEISS: The robot moved a little clumsily, and even bruised its arms. But the scientists are helping iCub to clean up its crawling technique.

IJSPEERT: Something we haven’t done yet so far is dealing with complex terrain. So, for instance: going up or down a sofa, or going downstairs, climbing upstairs. These are very complex problems, both in terms of the locomotion coordination skills, but also in terms of visual processing.

(Photo: RobotCub)


WEISS: Several buildings away, Ijspeert’s colleague Aude Billard is also working on iCub. Billard, who heads EPFL’s Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory, is out of the country, and her student Eric Sauser shows me around. The robot is anchored vertically to a workbench, apparently snoozing.

SAUSER: So, it’s basically not that small sized robot, but it’s smaller than a normal human. It's about the size of a kid of four to five years old….

WEISS: The researchers are interested in three major questions. How does the brain build a model of its own body? How do you coordinate the motion of your eyes, head, and arms to reach an object? And how do you use that information to learn from imitating somebody else?


SAUSER: Sauser straps some sensors to his left arm and hand, and powers up iCub. As he moves his arm and fingers, the robot does likewise. Like us, it has an opposable thumb, which enables it to grasp objects and release them.


SAUSER: We had a screwdriver before. That may be a bit scary, a robot with a screwdriver. But, I’m confident since it’s me that controls the robot - and the programmers - I'm responsible for it. So, here the robot got the screwdriver. He can move it around in the air, hit the floor…


iCub learns to crawl. ( Photo: Sarah Degallier)

WEISS: The scientists will also study the kind of nonverbal information we can only get through touching - as when a tennis coach lifts the elbow of a player to correct a stroke. Eventually, Billard and Ijspeert hope to combine their efforts to study more complex gestures. But, as Ijspeert explains, that’s still awhile off.

IJSPEERT: I think we are now, just at the beginning, in terms of the software. So now we have a nice robot. And we have done, I think, a good job at starting putting together this piece of software, but there’s much more work to do in terms of really addressing questions of what it means to have some artificial intelligence.

WEISS: Perhaps someday, like any kid, iCub will be able to clean its room or to play ping-pong with you. For now, it’s not half bad on the foot-pedal drums.


WEISS: In Lausanne, Switzerland, I’m Giselle Weiss.


GELLERMAN: Giselle Weiss' story is from the series: ‘Engineers of the New Millennium.' It’s a co-production of the IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Spectrum-dot-i-triple-e-dot-org, and the Directorate of Engineering for the National Science Foundation.



The iCub story is part of “Robots for Real,” a co-production of IEEE Spectrum Magazine and the National Science Foundation.


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