Recently, a team of French researchers from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) announced a new feature for the humanoid NAO, which would allow the robot to develop an autobiographical memory. The new technology could have implications for technology in space, as well for the elderly here on Earth.
In a statement, CNRS explained:
Researchers developed a system whereby a human agent can teach the Nao humanoid new actions through physical demonstration (by putting the robot's members in the correct position), visual imitation (through the Kinect system), or voice command.
NAO learns and stores the information as procedures that it can later recall and explain to other people. In a video, team member Marwin Sorce demonstrates how NAO learns:
The ability to learn and teach information would be especially useful on the International Space Station (ISS), where human crews cycle in and out and have to problem-solve on the spot. In a phone interview, lead researcher Peter Ford Dominey told me that NAO's autobiographical memory really comes into play when there's no roadmap, in "situations that are not pre-foreseeable. Something breaks. It never broke like that before, [and] the person who knows about how that thing works is going to fix it, but needs the robot to help him."
In this scenario, an experienced astronaut is teaching NAO. When that crew member leaves the ISS, NAO would be able to pass that information onto the next person who encounters the problem. This makes NAO a guide to the unexpected—a device that retains information that never made it into the user's guide, without requiring the human teacher to actively document the problem-solving process.
But a memory-endowed NAO is a long way from space. Dominey said that at this point, the ISS is just a possibility—first, his team would have to see how NAO functions in a no-gravity situation: "The first step is to take the demonstration out of the lab, and put it into a more space-like environment." To see how NAO copes in a zero-gravity environment, Dominey and his team are hoping to nab a spot on one of the European Space Agency's (ESA) parabolic flights.
Plus, space already has a robot—the Robonaut II, which has been living on the ISS for the past four years.
If robotic, autobiographical memory gets to space, it might be Robonaut II who does the remembering, leaving NAO behind.
But a small, friendly, humanoid robot with the capacity to learn and remember could serve a different purpose on this planet. The autobiographical memory that would make NAO useful in an environment with high human turnover rates could make it useful when serving a single person struggling with short-term memory. That makes this proposed version of NAO a perfect companion for the elderly.
Dominey told me that those who suffer from memory loss and live in nursing homes, for instance, "get a little bit cut off from social relationships. They can tend to, even when people come to visit them, become kind of left out of social interaction, partially because of memory problems." He continued: "This robot, that has this wonderful, limitless memory, could be kind of a memory aid for these people. In that sense it would form a social bridge to link the person back into their family circle or circle of people that they know by providing this memory link."
NAO can recognize people, and could hypothetically remind someone of who they are and the context in which they last saw them. "The robot could say, John was here two weeks ago at 11:45 a.m.," explained Dominey. NAO's knowledge could serve as an exomemory for recent social interactions.
Still, an autobiographical memory NAO remains far from retail shelves. "To make the step from these demonstrations that we have in the lab to things being available is a non-trivial step," said Dominey. "One way we can do that is to have funding. We've been submitting projects to the European Union to go to the next step and develop this kind of technology so it could be used in elderly care."
Bring us to the future, NAO.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.