Ameca can speak French, Chinese or dozens of other languages, instantly compose a poem or sketch a cat on request. Ask for a smile, and you’ll get a clenched grin on her rubbery blue face. Ameca is a humanoid robot powered by generative artificial intelligence that gives it the ability to respond to questions and commands and interact with people. It’s one of hundreds of robots on display this week at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, or ICRA, in London, where visitors got a glimpse at the future.
The event is sort of the Olympics of the robot world, where student teams compete in a host of challenges including robot cooking and autonomous driving contests, academics present their research and startups show off their latest technology. It comes as scientists and tech industry leaders, including executives at Microsoft and Google, warned about the perils of artificial intelligence to mankind, saying “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority.” Packs of robotic dogs swarmed the exhibition floor. Visitors used virtual reality headsets and joysticks to move the arms of android sentries on wheels. Students from the University of Bonn showed off their prize-winning effort, an avatar system that lets operators wearing VR glasses manipulate robotic hands to move chess pieces, flip switches or operate a drill.
One of the key challenges was building a system that someone who’s not a member of the team could start using quickly, Ph.D. student Max Schwarz said. “It means we have to build an intuitive system that people can learn in a very short time, like half an hour,” he said. New artificial intelligence systems are part of the buzz at this year’s show, said Kaspar Althoefer, general chair of conference’s 2023 edition. “ChatGPT is a good example where AI has really gone through the roof. And there is, of course, also a lot of interest to combine this with robotics,” Althoefer said. “For example, if you had ChatGPT combined with a robotic device, then maybe you could tell the robot what to do and there would be no programing necessary.” Will Jackson, director of Engineered Arts, the British company that created Ameca, said his company’s robots are designed for tasks that involve interacting with humans, such as helping visitors in amusement parks.
“Humanoid robots are all about communication with people: So it’s about facial expression, it’s about gestures — so that conversation, storytelling, entertainment, those are the things that we’re interested in,” he said. AI has developed so quickly that the biggest robotic challenge is mechanical engineering, he said. Ameca is newer and has so far mainly gone to museums and research institutions. It uses the AI image generator Stable Diffusion to draw and OpenAI’s GPT-3 to come up with responses.