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Humanoid robot might provide liaison between space station crews

08 September 2015

French researchers propose a humanoid robot that could pass on knowledge gained by returning ISS crews following a six-month tour of duty, to those replacing them.

CNRS senior researcher Peter Ford Dominey and the robot Nao (photo: Inserm/Patrice Latron)

A team of French researchers has developed an 'autobiographical memory' for the robot Nao, which enables it to pass on knowledge learnt from humans to other, less knowledgable humans. This technology could be used for operations on the International Space Station (ISS), where the permanently installed robot would liaise between the different crews that change every six months in order to pass on information.

Autobiographical memory includes events that were personally experienced, along with their context. It makes it possible to date and locate memories, and to determine who was present during the event. With human beings, autobiographical memory helps build an individual's personal history.

The researchers developed a system whereby a human agent is able to teach the Nao humanoid new actions through physical demonstration (by putting the robot's limbs in the correct position), visual imitation (through the Kinect system), or voice command. These individual actions are then combined into procedures and stored in the robot's autobiographical memory, thus enabling it to reproduce them for other human agents if needed.

Researchers set up this autobiographical memory system to meet the challenge of cooperation between humans and robots, which is becoming more and more of a reality in the field of space operations, with the humanoid Robonaut 2* now permanently flying aboard the International Space Station.

To test their system, the scientists imagined a scenario that might occur aboard the International Space Station. The transmission of information is essential, since crews change every six months. In their scenario, an electronic card is damaged. Nao plays the role of the scientist's assistant by following his directions, bringing or holding parts of the card during repair.

If this same failure happens again, the memory of the event will enable the robot to use a video system to show the repair to a new member of the crew. It could also respond to questions regarding the previous event, while helping with the new repair. If a slightly different failure takes place, the robot could share its expertise on failures of this type, while recording the steps needed to resolve this new problem and then transferring them to the scientists in the next crew.

These results demonstrate the feasibility of this system, and show that such humanoid robots represent a potential solution for the accumulation and transfer of knowledge. Researchers are now hoping to test the Nao robot in the real conditions of space operations, with zero gravity. 

They are also considering another area of application - assisting the elderly, with the robot this time playing the role of a personal memory aid.

The research was carried out at Inserm/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, and led by CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) senior researcher Peter Ford Dominey.

*Robonaut 2 is a humanoid robot resulting from the Robonaut program, a close collaboration between NASA and DARPA. A unit was delivered to the ISS in February 2011 to control the robot's operation in weightlessness. It was designed to assist the work of astronauts in complicated situations, especially during extra-vehicular outings.

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