New Vehicles Will Make Own Decisions Based on Commands

"If I give you a task, like go get the mail, there are a number of steps that are required for you to do that," Valenti says. "First, you subconsciously might say you have to get up. And then you'll walk to the door, and maybe you'll have to go outside, and you'll open the door and walk to the mailbox, and there's your mail. The task scheduler provides the goals."

Independent Robots

But how do you carry out those tasks? For a human, it's so easy we don't even have to think about it. But for an unmanned vehicle, it can be very challenging.

That's where the work of Tom Schouwenaars comes into play. He's working on his doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and he has developed something called a "trajectory planner." That's the software that translates the verbal command into a series of coded representations that the computer can understand.

Those codes would, for example, tell the robot to stand up first if it wants to go get the mail. They would also warn the robot that it is on the second floor, so if it wants to go outside to the mailbox, use the stairs first.

Of course, all of that requires that the computer have some knowledge about its setting, but knowing it's on the second floor eliminates the need for some human to remind it to use the stairs.

"The level of autonomy has been increased by a lot," Schouwenaars says. "Here, there's no remote control."

Such "smart systems" could take over many tasks now performed by humans, the researchers say.

"You could have a robot around the house and ask it to do the dishes, or clean up the apartment, or wash the windows," Valenti says. The robot would do it because it would know how to translate those commands into specific tasks, and how to carry them out without breaking all the dishes.

All of this may sound a bit farfetched, but some of it is probably closer than we think, particularly for military purposes. DARPA officials have already indicated that some of the technology will be incorporated in the next generation of unmanned vehicles.

In fact, the key components are all around us. During the proof of concept demonstration over the California desert last June, a pilot aboard a Boeing F-15 fighter jet punched in written commands on a laptop computer, since the system was not yet capable of accepting verbal commands.

Those commands were received by a laptop aboard the T-33, which scheduled specific tasks and instructed the aircraft on how to carry them out while avoiding obstacles such as "no-fly zones."

It worked without a hitch, the researchers say.

So someday, the commercial jet carrying you home for the holidays may land at an airport under the exclusive command of an air traffic controller on the ground, who may have issued a single, verbal command.

"There will still be a pilot aboard," says Schouwenaars says. "But he won't have much to do."

Of course, unless our confidence in computers improves considerably, that change will probably result in more people taking the bus.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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