UW News

October 25, 2018

Creating curious robots: UW researchers get Honda grant to build a mathematical model of curiosity

UW News

Curious Minded Machine Logo

Curious Minded Machine is a new initiative by Honda Research Institute USA, Inc. to design a system that learns continuously in a humanlike, curiosity-driven way.Honda Research Institute USA, Inc.

Children are curious because it helps them better understand their world. Now researchers are curious if the same is true for robots.

Honda Research Institute USA, Inc., today announced a new initiative, called Curious Minded Machine, which will design a robot or system that learns continuously in a humanlike, curiosity-driven way. Curious robots would be lifelong learners that could expand their list of skills without any additional training.

The University of Washington will lead one of three teams that will partner with the institute to explore the mechanisms behind curiosity and seek advances in artificial cognition. The UW-led team will receive $2.7 million over the next three years to generate a mathematical model of curiosity.

Siddhartha Srinivasa with a robot

Siddhartha Srinivasa with his robot HERB (or “Home Exploring Robot Butler”).Dennis Wise/University of Washington

“We wish to explore several questions in our work,” said team leader Siddhartha Srinivasa, who is the Boeing Endowed professor with the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “What is curiosity? Can we build a rich mathematical model that makes a robot curious? Will a curious robot be accepted more? Will we be more tolerant of its mistakes?”

Two other Allen School researchers, assistant professor Maya Cakmak and professor Dieter Fox, bring their experience studying human–robot interactions, including designing programmable robots that users can personalize for specific tasks and developing ways for robots to perceive objects in an environment. Leila Takayama, an acting associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, rounds out the team with expertise on the social science of how humans interact with robots.

“Our first step is to better understand curiosity in humans, starting from infants’ constant experimentation with their surroundings, to 4-year-olds asking why everything is the way it is, to adults’ interest in topics completely outside their professions,” Cakmak said. “Humans are intrinsically rewarded by new information even when that information is not necessarily applicable, but curiosity has long-term benefits. We would like to give robots similar benefits for being curious.”

After the researchers develop a model of curiosity, they hope to use it to create two separate robot prototypes: a social robot that interacts with people in an office building or a home, and an arm robot that could manipulate objects placed in front of it, like in an assembly line. The team argues that the same model could be used for both prototypes.

Maya Cakmak with a robot

Maya Cakmak with a PR2 robot. Cakmak’s research aims to make robots that can be used by a wide variety of users, each with unique needs.University of Washington

“Let’s say our model of curiosity rewards the robot for obtaining novel information that is irrelevant to its current task,” Cakmak said. “For the building robot this could manifest as taking a different path on the way back from a delivery. For the arm robot, this could result in the robot ‘playing’ with objects that are not part of its current task.”

Curious robots, the team said, are a step toward making robots that can perform constantly changing tasks. For example, future caregiver robots will need to be able to adjust their jobs to meet patients’ fluctuating needs.

“We think that curious robots will not only be better at their jobs, but they will appeal more to people,” Cakmak said. “Prior work also shows that robots can spark curiosity in people, which would be a wonderful side effect of curious robots.”

The UW-led team’s efforts will dovetail with work by two other teams, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. These teams will address other areas, such as how robots perceive and interact with the world and how robots can predict upcoming actions. After the three-year program, Honda Research Initiative will combine the work from all the teams to form the foundation for a future curious-minded robot.

“Honda is a pioneer in robotics research,” Srinivasa said. “Their humanoid robot Asimo was a game-changer in locomotion, motion planning, control and AI. To date, it is one of the most impressive and intelligent robots I have ever seen. With this collaboration, we hope to bring about a similar wave of new excitement to human–robot interaction and the field of robotics.”