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This Week In Bots: Droids Evolve Language, Disney Researches Swarms, Swordfights!, Cheap Butlers, And Colbert's Pandertron 8000

Robots, robots everywhere, and soon they'll begin to think. The tech behind our future android assistants evolves every minute. Here's the latest.

Luna droid


One conceit in the Star Wars universe is that robots have evolved their own lingua franca that's audible and at least partially decipherable to humans—instead of just communicating in extraordinary detail, silently, via digital radio. With this in mind, meet Lingodroids a pair of robots from Universities in Queensland, Australia that are able to communicate with each other "verbally." The best bit—they don't use words like humans do, preferring instead a language based on beeps. Like R2-D2. Honestly:

It's all about evolving a language from scratch that could enable robots of different types to communicate important information and possibly even abstract ideas. The two bots in question here have learned how to navigate and identify locations just by talking to each other and playing a simple games like "chase me" where one speaks a location in a maze, and sees if the other one finds it. It works surprisingly well, and in the future they'll be taught to share more complex info like navigation routes.

PR2 Reads and Speaks

PR2 is an important, if weird-looking machine—the product of Willow Garage, he's mainly intended to be a highly sophisticated research and development platform to let academics and roboticists refine different technologies and coding models for how robots will evolve. And now he speaks, unlike Lingodroids and their aping of R2D2, PR2 is more of a C3PO clone, injected with some of that "read everything" enthusiasm that kids get when they're learning because he reads and speaks English.

This is the work of the University of Pennsylvania's GRASP Lab, so the robot is dubbed Graspy—and he's more of a proof of concept than anything else. On the other hand, the source code for this open source experiment is available for other PR2 owners to we may expect more useful implementations soon.

Swarm Bots get Disneyfied, get on their dancing boots

Robots and Disney—a conceptually strange mix you may think, until you remember EPCOT and how Disney tries to automate SFX in its theme parks. And that explains why Disney's been doing research into swarms of robots. The goal is to teach swarms to move smoothly and artistically from one configuration to another:

It's more conceptual than practical at the moment, but one day those character-filled parades may get a lot more robotic. Will that make them less cuddly?

Teaching a robot to swordfight

Wait...what? This sounds like an awesomely bad idea—unless you're preparing for a real-life special effects shot in Star Wars VII. But there's actually some excellent thinking here: A Georgia Tech researcher has been working to teach a robot arm to fight, including predictive and pre-emptive moves, in order to protect humans. The idea is that when robots are moving among us more commonly, they'll need to be able to predict how we may move, or to react safely when an unexpected accident happens, so that no person made of flesh is hurt. Swordplay is an interesting way to develop these algorithms.

But man we wish someone remixes this video à la Star Wars Kid.

Meet Luna, the real robot butler—at affordable prices

We've described numerous robot butler efforts before with good reason—it's the kind of simple daily assist role that may see the first acceptance of androids into the home. We're not kidding—and neither are RoboDynamics who recently revealed Luna. He's very simple, but fairly capable, and he's based on an open source OS so his skills will evolve as apps and tweaks get written. But here's where he blows away the competition: He's going to be actually on sale soon for a mere $3,000—thousands less than any competitors.

The video doesn't do the sturdy little chap much justice, since he's in late prototype stage...but expect to see a lot more of this machine.

Stephen Colbert's Pandertron 8000

Robots joining in the comedic take-down of politicians? You betcha. Okay—kinda. But check Colbert's skit from about 4:30 on and imagine what a sketch like this may be in 10 years or so.


Previous "This Week In Bots" installments can be read here and here.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.