Humans and robots work better together following cross-training

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]pending a day in someone else’s shoes can help us to learn what makes them tick. Now the same approach is being used to develop a better understanding between humans and robots, to enable them to work together as a team.

Robots are increasingly being used in the manufacturing industry to perform tasks that bring them into closer contact with humans. But while a great deal of work is being done to ensure robots and humans can operate safely side-by-side, more effort is needed to make robots smart enough to work effectively with people, says Julie Shah, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and head of the Interactive Robotics Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

“People aren’t robots, they don’t do things the same way every single time,” Shah says. “And so there is a mismatch between the way we program robots to perform tasks in exactly the same way each time and what we need them to do if they are going to work in concert with people.”

Most existing research into making robots better team players is based on the concept of interactive reward, in which a human trainer gives a positive or negative response each time a robot performs a task.

However, human studies carried out by the military have shown that simply telling people they have done well or badly at a task is a very inefficient method of encouraging them to work well as a team.

So Shah and PhD student Stefanos Nikolaidis began to investigate whether techniques that have been shown to work well in training people could also be applied to mixed teams of humans and robots. One such technique, known as cross-training, sees team members swap roles with each other on given days. “This allows people to form a better idea of how their role affects their partner and how their partner’s role affects them,” Shah says.

In a paper to be presented at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Tokyo in March, Shah and Nikolaidis will present the results of experiments they carried out with a mixed group of humans and robots, demonstrating that cross-training is an extremely effective team-building tool.

To allow robots to take part in the cross-training experiments, the pair first had to design a new algorithm to allow the devices to learn from their role-swapping experiences. So they modified existing reinforcement-learning algorithms to allow the robots to take in not only information from positive and negative rewards, but also information gained through demonstration. In this way, by watching their human counterparts switch roles to carry out their work, the robots were able to learn how the humans wanted them to perform the same task.

Each human-robot team then carried o

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