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Designing customized “brains” for robots

Contemporary robots can move quickly. “The motors are fast, and they’re powerful,” says Sabrina Neuman.

Yet in complex situations, like interactions with people, robots often don’t move quickly. “The hang up is what’s going on in the robot’s head,” she adds.

Perceiving stimuli and calculating a response takes a “boatload of computation,” which limits reaction time, says Neuman, who recently graduated with a PhD from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Neuman has found a way to fight this mismatch between a robot’s “mind” and body. The method, called robomorphic computing, uses a robot’s physical layout and intended applications to generate a customized computer chip that minimizes the robot’s response time.

The advance could fuel a variety of robotics applications, including, potentially, frontline medical care of contagious patients. “It would be fantastic if we could have robots that could help reduce risk for patients and hospital workers,” says Neuman.

Neuman will present the research at this April’s International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems. MIT co-authors include graduate student Thomas Bourgeat and Srini Devadas, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering and Neuman’s PhD advisor. Other co-authors include Brian Plancher, Thierry Tambe, and Vijay Janapa Reddi, all of Harvard University. Neuman is now a postdoctoral NSF Computing Innovation Fellow at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

There are three main steps in a robot’s operation, according to Neuman. The first is perception, which includes gathering data using sensors or cameras. The second is mapping and localization: “Based on what they’ve seen, they have to construct a map of the world around them and then localize themselves within that map,” says Neuman. The third step is motion planning and control — in other words, plotting a course of action.

These steps can take time and an awful lot of computing power. “For robots to be deployed into the field and safely operate in dynamic environments around humans, they need to be able to think and react very quickly,” says Plancher. “Current algorithms cannot be run on current CPU hardware fast enough.”

Neuman adds that researchers have been investigating better algorithms, but she thinks software improvements alone aren’t the answer. “What’s relatively new is the idea that you might also explore better hardware.” That means moving beyond a standard-issue CPU processing chip that comprises a robot’s brain — with the help of hardware acceleration.

Hardware acceleration refers to the use of a specialized hardware unit to perform certain computing tasks more efficiently. A commonly used hardware


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