(19/06/2012) In 1920, Czech writer Karel Capek introduced the word 'robot' to the world. His play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) was a work of science fiction, but robots, albeit very different from how Capek imagined them, are rapidly becoming a reality today. Their development is being helped by groundbreaking research taking place in the Czech Republic, a country with a long history of innovation in many fields.
The Czech Technical University (CTU) in Prague, the oldest institute of technology in Central Europe, stands at the forefront of robotics research. Teams there are working on a range of technologies that promise great advances in robotic devices, applications and human-robot interaction.
In the NIFTI (1) project, researchers from CTU are looking at how robots can most effectively cooperate with humans to perform different tasks with a focus on search and rescue operations. The goal is to develop a cognitive robot that is not only aware of its own capabilities and situation, but can adapt its behaviour depending on the people it is interacting with.
'Much research has gone into how robots could function autonomously... Little has been said so far on how a robot could cooperate with a human. Not just having a human in the loop - but actually bearing the human in mind, when determining what to do or say next, when, and how. This is where NIFTI comes in. NIFTI puts the human factor into cognitive robots,' the project team say.
The vision is to one day have human-robot teams working together after a disaster to assess the situation and locate victims, with robots performing tasks that may be too dangerous for a human.
In such a scenario, how would robots and humans interact and communicate?
That question is being answered in another project involving a team from CTU. In Humavips (2), researchers are developing robots with auditory and visual capabilities that are able to explore a new environment, recognise people and interact with them in a natural way.
Using multimodal perception, a Humavips robot should be able to enter a room full of people, identify which voice is coming from whom, select a person to talk to, synthesise human-like behaviour and engage in communications. In essence, the robot will have 'social skills' - a crucial factor in making human-robot interaction natural and effective in any environment.
Sometimes, however, there may be a need for robots that do not act like humans. They might, for example, behave more like insects.
That is the goal of Replicator (3), a five-year project involving a team from CTU and researchers from the Czech Institute of Microelectronic Application, as well as partners in five other European countries. Together with a sister project, Symbrion, the researchers are developing 'swarm bots' - hoards of tiny bio-inspired autonomous robots able to combine and configure themselves to perform different tasks.
Much as termites, ants or bees forage collaboratively for food, build nests and cooperate for the greater good of the colony, swarming robots could collaboratively work in hazardous environments, perform surgery or even explore the surface of Mars.
Among other challenges being addressed in Replicator, the researchers are working on miniature power sources, sensing technology, self-programming and self-configuration features and making the robots as robust as possible.
From lightning and genetics to déjà vu
While work on robotics in the Czech Republic is undoubtedly world class, Czech research extends to many other disciplines, drawing on a rich scientific heritage that includes many notable achievements.
In 1754, for example, Václav Prokop Diviš independently invented the first grounded lighting rod, perfecting Benjamin Franklin's discovery of two years prior. He also invented the first electrical musical instrument, the Denis d'or.
Around a century later, Gregor Johann Mendel, working in the Czech city of Olomouc, studied plant hybridisation and showed how certain traits in pea plants were passed down from one generation to the next. Though largely unrecognised at the time, Mendel's research subsequently led to him being dubbed the 'father of modern genetics.'
Also in the early 19th century, Jan Evangelista Purkyne, a Czech anatomist and physiologist, was one of the best known scientists of his time, noted for his work on brain cells, blood plasma and his discovery of sweat glands.
Czech scientists today are following in their footsteps. Researchers at Masaryk University, which bore Purkyne's name until 1990, recently announced that they have found the cause of déjà vu.
Working with colleagues from the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC), the team discovered specific brain structures that cause some people to experience the sensation of déjà vu frequently while other people may never experience it at all.
"By finding the structural differences in hippocampus in healthy individuals who do and do not experience déjà vu, we have unambiguously proved that déjà vu is directly linked to the function of these brain structures," notes Milan Brázdil from CEITEC, the lead author of the study, which was partly EU funded.
The finding is one of the first to emerge from CEITEC, which was recently established in the Czech city of Brno. It is one of the most advanced technology centres in Europe, dedicated to a range of sciences: from biology and genomics to nanotechnology and advanced materials development.
Even before CEITEC, researchers in Brno played a big role in Czech science. At CTU's Brno campus, a team are working on developing an advanced epidemic intelligence and medical data system to closely monitor diseases and forewarn of epidemics. The system, being developed in the M-ECO (4) project, uses web 2.0 technologies such as 'open access' media and user-generated content as unofficial, but quick and efficient, information sources for intelligence on epidemics.
Also in Brno, the Czech division of Honeywell International is coordinating development of technology that should enable much higher performance computing systems, thanks to work being carried out in the Reflect (5) project. The team are focused on enhanced design approaches for 'Field-programmable gate-arrays' (FPGAs) - a type of integrated circuit that can be configured and reconfigured after manufacturing - in multi-core embedded computing. Their goal is to make reconfiguring and customising FPGA-based systems less cumbersome and error-prone for a wide variety of applications.
At Charles University in Prague, meanwhile, the focus of one team of researchers is on the similarly challenging area of machine translation. Working with partners in Spain, France, Romania, the United Kingdom and the United States, the researchers are developing high-volume machine translation systems that respond rapidly and intelligently to user feedback.
For the project, called Faust (6), the researchers are working with five pairs of EU official languages and hope, with the help of direct user feedback, to solve many of the errors and mistranslation problems that have long plagued machine translation systems.
Overcoming language barriers is a key issue for the end-users targeted in another project involving Czech researchers. The Maseltov (7) initiative, which involves a team from CTU, aims to apply innovative mobile ICT technologies to help immigrants in European countries overcome social and cultural isolation.
Designed to be installed on a user's mobile device, applications developed by the Maseltov researchers will provide immigrants with services such as ubiquitous language translation, navigation, access to administrative and emergency health information, social networking and persuasive learning tools.
The projects featured in this article have been supported by the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research.
(1) NIFTI: Natural human-robot cooperation in dynamic environments
(2) Humavips: Humanoids with auditory and visual abilities in populated spaces
(3) Replicator: Robotic eEvolutionary self-programming and self-assembling organisms
(4) M-ECO: Medical EcoSystem
(5) Reflect: Rendering FPGAs to Multi-Core Embedded Computing
(6) Faust: Feedback Analysis for User adaptive Statistical Translation
(7) Maseltov: Mobile Assistance for Social Inclusion and Empowerment of Immigrants with Persuasive Learning Technologies and Social Network Services
- FP7 on CORDIS
- NIFTI on CORDIS
- Humavips on CORDIS
- Replicator on CORDIS
- M-ECO on CORDIS
- Reflect on CORDIS
- Faust on CORDIS
Maseltov on CORDIS