Teaching a robot cat to walk – like a cat!

If you’ve ever watched a robot walk – it’s a little creepy.  It looks a little like us, and yet, it clearly isn’t a human being walking.

And that, is because it doesn’t walk the way we walk.  A robot takes a step, recalculates, takes another step, recalculates, takes another step, and on, and on, and on.   Robot programming turns walking into a series of steps, in order to take steps.

We don’t walk like that.  No living creature moves like that.  And one day, that got some scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) thinking.  What about making a robot, a robot cat to be specific, that walks the way a cat walks?

And what that meant – was instead of making code, you make a spinal cord.  And your building blocks – are artificial neurons, instead of algorithms.

So that’s what they did.  Or, started to do.  Meet Kleo the Robot Cat.

It’s fair to say that at the moment, Kleo is not making any traditional robots quake in their metallic boots.  (You can see Kleo in action here.)  But Kleo is learning to walk, by walking.  Over time, its artificial neurons, its spinal cord – figure out that if this neuron connects to that neuron, and that neuron to this other neuron and so forth – Kleo moves.  The learning is slow, and the walking is slow – but it does learn, by doing – and the walking is in the same way that a cat walks, eventually.

Of course, Nature provides cats and other animals with a spinal cord.  Kleo’s network of neurons is a series of circuit boards, and where you find circuit boards, you find polymers derived from petrochemicals.

Now, will it work in the end?  Too early to tell for that.  But since animals with very tiny brains get around quite well – it may turn out that building a big robot brain, is not the only, or even the best way, to make a walking machine.  A robot that learns how to walk by walking, and learning what works – might be a lot simpler to make than a robot that has to be stuffed full of code to move.

And however they move, it will be awhile before robots look like the real thing – any real thing.  So in the meantime, if you’d like to have a laugh at the expense of our future overlords, take a look at “A Compilation of Robots Falling Down at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.”   Ouch!

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