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Manuela Veloso said These Robots Are Not Science Fiction

“These Robots Are Not Science Fiction”

Manuela Veloso May 2011 Manuela Veloso, a well-known Portuguese researcher at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), was recently interviewed by WIRED Magazine ( about her team’s challenges and wishes to build up the first robots that will “intermingle with the living, breathing masses.”

After pursuing research on automated planning algorithms for her Ph.D. thesis in Computer Science at CMU, Manuela Veloso became interested in actual intelligent robots, capable of the complete autonomy cycle: detect the state of the world, generate a plan to achieve goals, and actually execute planned actions – just like humans do.

COBOT 2011 In the mid-1990s, Manuela Veloso started to build robots that could play soccer (, in multiple different leagues, including teams of small-wheeled fast robots and four-legged and biped robots. The researcher explained to the WIRED reporter that: “Even up until 2002, they could hardly stand and kick the ball. All of our research was on having the biped humanoid machines lift up one foot and kick the ball – and 90 per cent of the time they’d fall down.” Currently, “complete games are run between these humanoid robots. They run on the field, they move fast, they kick, they stand up by themselves. It’s all another story.” Veloso’s robot soccer teams participate and have won several annual championships organized by RoboCup, an international scientific initiative that seeks to advance the state of the art of intelligent robots. “The people behind this initiative want their bipeds to beat human soccer teams by 2050,” wrote the reporter.

Interestingly, Veloso mentions that her research experience with teams of soccer robots led her to think about service robots also in a team with the humans in their environments, indeed in a symbiotic relationship.

Symbiotic Autonomy
In parallel, Manuela Veloso’s research team is setting up CoBots (collaborative robots), which are mobile robots that are able to perform different tasks. It is normal to find one CoBot at the Gates Hillman Center at CMU, where Manuela Veloso is located. In fact, visitors to Manuela Veloso are regularly escorted to her office by one CoBot robot.

The driving principle behind Veloso’s CoBots is that “Robots can do very little.” Therefore, Manuela Veloso explained to the WIRED reporter that she “decided that in order to really have these robots be a part of our environment, they need a symbiotic relationship with humans, and they need to proactively ask for help when they need help.” One example is when the CoBot asks for humans help to press an elevator button.

The WIRED reporter explains that “in symbiotic autonomy, robots move through the world by themselves, but if they encounter uncertainties about their location, or if what they’re doing surpasses the threshold of their capabilities, they stop and ask humans for help.”

“This has been a little bit of a revolution for us,” said Veloso to the WIRED reporter adding: “to look at these robots as needing help, capable of asking for help, and doing the rest by themselves.” The CoBots are part of an NSF-funded research project. ( )

Questioned about the future, Manuela Veloso told the reporter that her team in the next few years “will be working on giving the CoBots the ability to actively learn semantic labels for locations in an environment; perform natural language-based interaction with humans; autonomous execution monitoring; and learning by example from human demonstration a and human correction.”

Manuela Veloso within the CMU Portugal Program
In the scope of the Carnegie Mellon Portugal Program, Manuela Veloso has several roles: she is the Principal Investigator on a research project, serves as an advisor within the Program, and receives faculty exchange members at CMU. As a Principal Investigator at Carnegie Mellon of the MAIS+S project, she works in conjunction with the Instituto Superior Técnico of the Universidade Técnica de Lisboa (IST/UTL) with the research institutes: INESC ID and ISR, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Portuguese company Observit. The project addresses the problem of planning in decentralized multi-agent systems in the context of intelligent surveillance networks. Susana Brandão is the dual degree doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering whom is advised by Veloso and João Paulo Costeira, a professor from the IST/UTL. Recently Manuela Veloso received at CMU Rodrigo Ventura an Assistant Professor at the IST/UTL.

August, 2012

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