Friday, December 01, 2006

Ghost in the machine

KAIST's Robot Intelligence Technology, or RIT, lab is most famous as the home of the Federation of International Robot-soccer Association, FIRA, the robotic soccer league. But beyond the easy crowd appeal of robotic sport, the researchers here are far more enthusiastic about a different creation -- one that lives in the wires and silicon woven throughout the walls of this building: a "software robot" they call Rity.

Rity is the ghost in the machine: an autonomous agent that can transfer itself into desktop computers, PDAs, servers and robotic avatars, and adapt and evolve like a genetic organism. As researchers go from place to place, they are captured and recognized by a network of cameras in the building, allowing Rity to follow them from computer to computer.

The "sobot" can upload itself into a mobile robot -- a simpler cousin of HanSaRam called MyBot -- and follow Kuppuswamy from room to room on its servo-controlled wheels, fetching objects for the researcher with its mechanical arms. If it sees Kuppuswamy sit in front of his office PC, Rity can abandon MyBot like a husk and slip into the desktop machine, to better put itself at its human master's disposal.

That's the theory, at least. The researchers here have set themselves a high task: creating a world in which robotic software minds and hardware bodies blend into the environment of daily life.

In a hospital setting, for example, sobots will serve as personal assistants to doctors, moving through a legion of bot bodies, some that check in on patients, others that track doctors through the hospital corridors. "Within 10 years robots will be in hospitals providing (triage)," says researcher Park In-Won.

In reality, Rity can't do much yet. On this day the scientists have a hard time just getting him to appear. They're gathered around a big-screen TV that sits like a living room centerpiece along one wall of the lab. A grad student is mugging for a mounted camera, which is supposed to recognize his face and summon his Rity. But nothing is happening.

Other students scramble around the lab -- a geek's paradise littered with cardboard boxes, caseless computers and inscrutable machined parts -- picking up the occasional tool and speaking in Korean to one another. Finally, the virtual genie materializes on the giant monitor, where it takes the form of a cute, cartoonish dog.

Original Article