Robotic dreams turn into a reality

The UAE could be adding to its achievements with the growth of robotics initiatives.

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By  Vineetha Menon Published  July 16, 2008

While the United Arab Emirates is famous for its architectural marvels and economic vision, the country might be about to add a few technological achievements to match, with the growth of robotics initiatives in the Emirates.

REEM-B, the UAE's first ‘home-grown' humanoid robot designed for the service industry by Pal Technology Robotics, was unveiled in Abu Dhabi just a few months ago. Now, technological enthusiasts are excited about plans for the first Arabic-speaking humanoid robot being built in the country.

Named Ibn Sina, after the polymath who excelled in philosophy, mathematics and medicine, the robot is the brainchild of Dr. Nikolaos Mavridis, director of the Interactive Robots and Media Laboratory (IRML) at the United Arab Emirates University.

"What would be more worthwhile for the UAE than to be able to build not only the tallest physical tower in the world, but also one of the highest intellectual endeavors like that of building intelligent humanlike humanoid robots?" says Mavridis, who was awarded his PhD from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory.

Once complete, Ibn Sina will have a human-like face and body, realistic skin and wide facial expression capabilities. It will be incorporated with speech synthesis capabilities, speech recognition and a dialogue system for enhanced interaction. Furthermore, the robot will have an advanced vision system and a sensor network that will be able to detect and track human faces and hands, as well as other objects in the environment.

The first public presentation of IbnSina is expected to take place as early as December 2008, with annual demonstrations to follow as plans progress.

The College of Information Technology at the UAE University offers undergraduate studies in specialized fields including Computer Systems Design and Intelligent Systems, with most of its students comprising of young UAE National women.

The project is also attracting international interns from prestigious centers for robotic excellence including Carnegie Mellon University, Siemens-Nixdorf Institute and the University of Edinburgh.

The benefits of this project are immeasurable as Mavridis explains: "The reawakening of interest in leading intellectual figures such as Ibn Sina is of foremost importance to the region. Human-like robots are an amazing platform for research in multiple fields related to artificial intelligence including computer vision, motor control and language processing. Robots are fun and inspiring so there are educational benefits as well, providing a unique tool for combining theory with real-world hands-on technological skills."

"It can also teach us a lot about ourselves too. In order to build such a machine, one needs to really learn and self-reflect, not only about the human body but also about the human mind - one needs to understand and model perception, belief, intentions and even emotions," Mavridis adds.

But that's not all. The Interactive Robots and Media Laboratory has other ambitious projects in progress, including FaceBots, for which it received the Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) RFP award by Microsoft Research. Only eight recipients were awarded the global prize, which also included funding for research, out of close to 80 applicants.

Notably, IRML was the only institution outside North America to receive the award and funding from the company. "It was MIT, CMU, Yale, McGill...and us," says Mavridis of the achievement.

FaceBots proposes using the social networking favorite, Facebook, to enhance a more meaningful and lasting relationship between humans and ‘bots.

The FaceBots will be equipped with face recognition capabilities, a simple dialog system and a real-time Facebook connection. Interaction will be initiated with humans using existing profile information such as age, hometown and profession as a point of conversation, with the robot logging each encounter. The ‘bots will go on to use memories of past encounters to strengthen relationships. It's expected that, in the future, the circle of friends of FaceBots will not only include humans, but also other robots.

FaceBots aims to be the first robot that is truly embedded in a social web, and the first to purposefully exploit and create social information that's available online.

The future of robotics has never looked better, Mavridis says: "The time of personal robots, and not only personal computers, is getting closer and closer. Just a quick look at the research budgets of major nations as well as major companies such as the Microsoft Robotics Studio shows where things are going."

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