How does a sailor give orders to tomorrowâ€™s robot firefighter? You do so verbally, just as you would order a regular person.
Thatâ€™s what we learned on Monday when we visited the Navyâ€™s Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research. The lab, known by its cheeky acronym LASR, puts the U.S. militaryâ€™s next-gen robots through the stresses of real-world conditions, thanks to simulations of shallow littoral waters, Mideastern deserts and Southeast Asian jungles. But it provides more than that. Its facilities allow both scientists and actual troops to interact with those robots, so flesh-and-blood sailors and their Cylon counterparts can each â€œlearnâ€ how to be better teammates once the military sends the robots into the field.
As we learned with Octavia, an unnervingly human robot with a plastic angelic face like a babyâ€™s and a soothing synthesized voice. One of Octaviaâ€™s lab functions is to put out fires. But since she has wheels instead legs, she canâ€™t get aboard a ship, since sheâ€™d never be able to climb the ladders on its deck. Her real value is to use her voice and infrared sensors to understand vocal commands from a sailor and use her algorithms to process discordant or contradictory information that humans provide her. That research will inform the Navyâ€™s actual shipboard â€˜bots â€” and, the lab hopes, give humans and robots a more intuitive model for understanding one another.
Alas, we didnâ€™t have as much luck when we tried to interview Octavia. We thought sheâ€™d answer a few questions, but as you can see in the video above, she preferred to hang back silently while we explained what went on at her laboratory home. Ah well; weâ€™re used to getting the silent treatment from human women. Just as long as she doesnâ€™t give sailors at the LASR the brushoff.
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