Hans-Georg Stork
by Hans-Georg Stork
European Commission, Information Society and Media Directorate General, Unit E5 "Cognitive Systems,Interaction, Robotics"

The speed at which European robot manufacturers are diversifying their product portfolios and enter new markets critically depends on contributions from research in diverse disciplines. Hard scientific problems still have to be worked on in order to make robotic devices fit for rendering meaningful services to people.

In 2009, EUROP, the European Robotics Platform (1), issued a Strategic Research Agenda (SRA), extrapolating from current trends. According to this agenda, by 2020 robots should for instance be programmable by learning (eg, from observation or imitation), they should be able to predict failure states in their operating environment and their own bodies (and take remedial action), detect operator intention, plan complex tasks, avoid collision with non-cooperative obstacles, achieve beyond-human-level dexterity and manipulation skills; they will increasingly rely on new materials incorporating a multitude of sensors and allowing for physical compliance; they will be equipped with fast processors (with new architectures, including neuromorphic) and ultra-high capacity on-board memory, for sensor fusion, controlling perception and action, and episodic memory.

Systems operating in largely non-deterministic environments, and close to people, will regularly be confronted with novelty, uncertainty and change. To work robustly and adaptively, they not only have to be able to extract information from their environment but also to reason and learn about it. At least limited autonomy will be important for certain kinds of robotic devices (including all sorts of vehicles). In order to control their own actions such artificial systems have to be endowed with capabilities that can with good justification be called “cognitive”.

Elementary cognitive capabilities include mechanisms for establishing and recognising patterns in sensor-generated data; they are prerequisites for higher level operations like conceptualisation, reasoning, planning, intelligent control and complex goal-oriented behaviour. Learning is essential at all levels.

Typical robot functionalities and the underlying structures can, to a certain degree, be understood and modelled in terms of those of living entities. The growing body of knowledge (for instance in the neuro- and behavioural sciences) about natural cognitive systems may therefore help fuel technical developments, for instance by informing the design of control architectures for multi-component and multi-degree-of-freedom artificial systems.

Under the 7th RTD Framework Programme of the European Commission, as of this writing, 75 grant agreements, falling in the remit of the ICT Challenge "Cognitive systems and robotics", have been or will shortly be concluded. Projects (2) address:

  • issues pertaining to endowing artificial systems with cognitive capabilities, including: object / scene - detection / recognition / analysis / classification / categorisation / interpretation; learning and adaptation, reasoning and planning;
  • issues specifically related to the design of robots of all sorts, including: roving and navigation, manipulation and grasping, human-robot interaction (especially safety), and robot-robot interaction.

Our work programme (3) acknowledges the fact that intelligent and cognitive systems research is, by the very nature of its subject matter, open-ended. There are no “final” results. But we do expect results that not only advance our knowledge in relevant areas but also enable engineers to build ever more viable systems with features such as safety, robustness, efficiency, ease of use, and (where needed) autonomy. Proposers are therefore asked to motivate, guide and validate their research through suitable scenarios of their choice, relating to industrial and service applications (for instance, industrial/service/medical robotics, exploration, logistics, maintenance and repair, search and rescue, monitoring and control, cognitive assistance, etc.).

In order to achieve impact, be it scientific, economic or societal, it is equally important for a project to actually demonstrate that it makes a significant contribution towards advancing the state of the art. Whether or not this demonstration can be based on agreed measures and, if so, what measures apply, depends on the type and scope of the project concerned.

A popular way of determining the quality of results is “benchmarking” which is suitable for instance for research focussing on improving the performance in carrying out a given task (such as recognising and classifying a given range of objects, assembling or disassembling objects, reaching a particular goal, etc.). Cognitive systems and robotics projects are expected to develop and publish benchmarks whenever possible. Another popular approach, especially with roboticists, to comparing technical achievements is through competitions. Our current work programme includes a measure to accommodate pertinent contests.

For our programme to live up to the inherent economic challenge, the participation of new players, notably from the robotics industry, is greatly encouraged. It is important for these companies (mostly small and medium-size enterprises) to formulate their research needs and meet them in collaboration with academic partners. Our ECHORD (European Clearing House for Open Robotics Development) (4) project is making promising moves towards this objective. In addition, the coordination action (CA) euRobotics (5), jointly with the above mentioned European Robotics Platform, provides an open forum for considerably widening the scope of this kind of activity.

The wider cognitive systems research communities are currently being served, on the basis of individual memberships, by EUCogII (6), the “2nd European Network for the Advancement of Artificial Cognitive Systems, Interaction and Robotics”, an EC supported coordination action that continues a similar FP6 initiative.

With preparations for FP8, the next RTD Framework Programme, still at the very beginning, it is too early to give concrete indications as to the extent, depth and emphases of future EU support to intelligent and cognitive systems research, the results of which will, after all, most likely continue to bring about considerable economic and societal benefits.

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and in no way represent the view of the European Commission and its services.

1) http://www.robotics-platform.eu/
2) http://cordis.europa.eu/fp7/ict/cognition/projects_en.html
3) For 2011-2012, http://cordis.europa.eu/fp7/ict/cognition/docs/workprogramme2011-2012.pdf, p. 37-39
4) http://www.echord.info/
5) http://www.eurobotics-project.eu/
6) http://www.eucognition.org/


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