Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Hard Problems in Robotics

There are so many things that need to be solved in robotics, that it's so difficult to choose just one to solve. I think that's a problem I have with focus. Even a seemingly simple problem opens up a whole can of worms of unsolved issues.

Suppose you consider the problem of a robot exploring some unknown planetary terrain. Let's assume that all the high-level directives and navigation commands come from our human masters off-site or perhaps off-planet. Our focus should be moving the robot around safely, keeping it stable, preventing damage, and conserving power. Our problem is this, how do we make this robot adapt to its environment?

First you have to define what you mean by environments. In this case, we mean variations in terrain such as rockiness, surface traction, soil looseness or hardness, inclines, non-uniformities in profile, pits or obstacles, and perhaps dynamic changes such as wind, water, or creatures.

What do we mean by adapt? Given a task and the current environment, we want the robot to tailor its actions over time to maximize performance. But what are we tuning? What performance are we maximizing? How is the robot measuring its own performance? These are all big issues that need to be solved, and their solutions may only apply in limited situations and may be very difficult to generalize.


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