Greg Armstrong works on Xavier. Armstrong is the primary caregiver for robots at CMU's Robotics Department. (Warren L. Leeder/Tribune-Review photo)
Robots may not need diapers, but they do need lots of tender, loving care
By Janit Gorka Stahl
FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wanted: robot baby sitter. Must be able to keep hardware in working order. Knowledge of sonar, operating systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning necessary. Responsible for many robots of all ages, including an infant. Diaper changing not necessary, but availability for appearances on live television is a plus.
The advertisement may not have read exactly like that in 1995 when Greg Armstrong agreed to be a robot maintainer, but he does offer diligent care to the Robotics Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Although the word robot may conjure images from old episodes of "Lost in Space," these machines look like high-tech trash cans. Researchers overlook glitzy C3PO-esque appearances to focus on how the robots learn and perform in diverse situations.
Armstrong, who performs a variety of programming tasks, is responsible for keeping the robots functioning smoothly so that research and software development by professors Sebastian Thrun and Reid Simmons, as well as numerous graduate students, is possible. Armstrong, 36, is the ``primary caregiver'' of three large robots - Xavier, Amelia and Florence - and several smaller robots with catchy names like Littlejohn, Marion and Robin.
Florence, named after Florence Nightingale, sports an LCD screen in her belly so patients can see their doctors from remote locations. The doctor views the patient using Flo's eyes.
"There's a lot of different robots that do a lot of different things," said Armstrong.
Florence, an ``Intelligent Nursing Robot,'' is the infant, still in development with the help of graduate students Mike Montemerlo, of Burke, Va., and Canadian Nick Roy.
"Florence is a prototype nursing robot," explained Armstrong. "Because it's a nursing robot we want people to interact with their doctor."
Florence is equipped with a LCD touch screen, speech recognition software and a mechanical face that will allow a doctor to talk to a patient without being in the room. The doctor can see through Florence's eyes and advise patients accordingly.
Xavier, the oldest of the robots, was built in 1983 by students working in conjunction with Real World Interface, a robotics company. Amelia was built by Real World Interface as an update to Xavier.
"Amelia is ever so slightly slimmer," said Armstrong. "Physically they are very similar. They use lasers and sonar to get around in the world."
Amelia tests human-robot interaction, while Xavier works on a robot team designed to coordinate moving heavy objects.
"They are tools for us to explore machine learning and artificial intelligence," explained Armstrong.
Armstrong responded to a CMU employment bulletin five years ago while working at the university outside of his field of electrical engineering to pay the bills. A graduate of Penn State University, he also served as a nuclear reactor operator in the Navy.
Armstrong's job in the Robot Learning Laboratory at Wean Hall has shifted towards computers, but it also places him in the public eye. This ``robot maintainer'' has conducted several demonstrations, mostly with Xavier, at venues that range from Gov. Tom Ridge's inauguration in Harrisburg to the lobby of Wean Hall where Xavier has ordered coffee from the cappuccino stand.
Florence, the nursing robot, sports an eyepatch where her left eye used to be. The eye was removed and placed on a new robot. Trading and stripping of parts is a common practice at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Department.
``Robots definitely have personalities,'' said Armstrong. ``Xavier is the old reliable. If I am going to travel for a demo, I want him to come. You never know what to expect with Amelia, sometimes she refuses to do anything.''
Armstrong and Montemerlo had the unique experience of helping Xavier and Florence perform live on the "Today" show with Katie Couric on New Year's Day. Although they ran into a few minor problems, Montemerlo said that ``with every public demonstration we back off to something that is safe so that the chance of success is better.''
Caution paid off apparently. Armstrong, who was keeping tabs on Xavier during the show, said their four minutes of fame went smoothly on camera even with both men ``behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz'' for emergency support on laptops.
The robots also visit schools to reveal their technological wonders.
"Small children, when they see a robot, their eyes get really wide," said Armstrong. "Just the look on their faces, the sheer amazement is really neat. It makes everything we do worthwhile."
At the Robot Learning Laboratory, robots and mechanical parts crowd every space. Computers fill table tops and robot body mockups by machinist Greg Baltus, a CMU employee, sit beside Amelia. Xavier is getting his hard drive upgraded to two Pentium III computers. Armstrong orders parts - even whole robots - from technical companies like Real World Interface and IS Robotics. Special parts like the directed perception pan-tilt cameras that sit on top of each robot need to come from a robotics company, but most of the robots' parts are from computer catalogs available on the mass market.
Xavier, a robot named after Charles Xavier of the 'X-Men' comic book series, has three cameras for his 'head.' Two of the cameras show black and white stereo vision used to watch and direct a robotic crane. Xavier also is known for telling bad jokes.
Armstrong never imagined that his days would be filled with robots and computers, a dream job for a science fiction fan.
"I always wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology," he said. "They are great big toys and I get paid to play with them. It's more fun than any job I can imagine."
Armstrong fills the pages of his self-made robot repair manual (robots don't come with instructions and trouble-shooting guides) as the robots look on, waiting for instructions. Flo works with grad students Montemerlo and Roy on telepresence. Her youth and advanced technology may spark new projects on the trustworthy Xavier or the fickle Amelia.
In the mean time, Armstrong will prepare Xavier's hard drive as any good robot nanny would.
Janit Gorka Stahl is a Trafford free-lance writer.
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