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“˜Fearful’ Robot Receives Top Honors

March 20, 2008

A robot named “Phobot” that mimics human fear took top honors during the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Amsterdam last week.

Seven teams from technical universities competed in the contest, with attendees voting Phobot, designed by University of Amsterdam students, their top pick.

All of the competing teams used the same National Instruments software and  Lego robotics set with light, sound, touch and ultrasound sensors.

“This robot is there as a sort of buddy to help a child having any kind of actual fear, doing it step by step,” said winning team member Ork de Rooij.  “The child would say, ‘Hey, not only am I scared, but this robot is also scared, so maybe we can help each other.’”

Phobot displayed his fear by retreating and spinning around when exposed to a fear-inducing object, in this case a threatening larger robot.   Then, mimicking the psychological principle of “graded exposure”, the robot overcomes its fear by first getting comfortable with exposure to smaller robots, then being exposed to increasingly larger ones.

Taking jury prize in the competition, and second place in popular vote, was “Pot Bot”, a device that monitors potted plants to determine whether they need sunlight or water.   If so, its sensors then locate and signal the strongest available light source using two front panels that resemble hands.  

Pot Bot uses Lego strips hanging at its sides like wind chimes to signal wind conditions.   The strips can also be spread like wings in a display of gratitude when the plant is watered.

“The robot acts as a mediator to make communication between humans and nature more fluid,” said Sonya Kwak, who led the combined team from Carnegie Mellon University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology that created Pot Bot.

“The robot itself was not so sophisticated, but it had an artistic quality to it, and it was very different, very original,” said conference organizer Christoph Bartneck while explaining the jury decision.

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