image title

Narrowing gap between man and machine

Future robots could help you assemble that IKEA chair.
January 12, 2016

ASU engineer exploring new frontiers in human-robot collaborations

Imagine an assembly robot that collaborates with a human to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture. The robot would need to analyze the movements of the human to avoid potentially hazardous collisions.

portrait of Heni Ben AmorHeni Ben Amor (pictured left) is trying to make that situation become closer to reality by helping robots better understand and respond to human behavior. For instance, the assembly robot may learn that it must hand over a screwdriver whenever a human is stretching out an arm.

Ben Amor, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is working to make advances in human-robot collaboration and on identifying the importance of such collaborations.

“I develop new methods that allow a robot to work in close proximity with human partners,” he said. “To ensure safe interaction, autonomous robots need to include movements and actions of human partners into their decision-making process.”

There is a widespread misconception that robots will replace humans in all workplaces, Ben Amor said. While it is true that robots can perform mundane, repetitive tasks better than humans, there are still many tasks at which humans are way better than robots.

“For humans, opening a fridge is not a particularly difficult thing to do. For robots, however, this can be a daunting challenge.”
— Heni Ben Amor, ASU assistant professor of computer science and engineering

He believes in a combination of robotic strength and speed on one side, and human decision-making, creativity and dexterity on the other side of a symbiotic relationship between robot and human.

“A fascinating aspect of working with robots is discovering how challenging even presumably simple tasks can be for a machine,” he said. “For humans, opening a fridge is not a particularly difficult thing to do. For robots, however, this can be a daunting challenge.”

Even after having a human program all the steps involved, “it may actually take the robot more than five minutes to accomplish the task. It is therefore very inspiring to see how nature managed to find very elegant and versatile solutions to similarly difficult problems,” Ben Amor said.

“I am particularly intrigued by learning capabilities of biological systems,” he said. “Humans and animals often learn to adapt and change their behavior whenever faced with a new challenge.”

Human-robot collaboration has become an important aspect of many applications of robotic technologies, such as in the automotive industry.

There is a strong interest in bringing human and robot capabilities together. For many tasks, human skills remain important, but  other tasks could best be accomplished by the strength and agility of robots. Deploying robots to help humans in physically demanding tasks could, for instance, lead to a significant reduction in work-related injuries.

Ben Amor is intrigued by machine learning involving robots. He wants to find out if robots can learn how to solve tasks on its own, by employing a human-like trial-and-error strategy to acquire new motor skills or imitating observed human behaviors and learning to program themselves based on what they observe.

“One idea that I am particularly fascinated by is a robot that reads a manual to learn to program itself,” he said.

He expands on the idea of robot assembling IKEA furniture. All of the pieces of furniture come with a manual that is originally intended for humans. He hopes that in the future a robot could scan the manuals and extract the knowledge it needs to program itself to do the assembly.

“I think for the acceptance of robots in many application domains it is important to reduce the programming effort that is currently involved," he said. “Robot learning can help eliminate this effort and thereby enable even laymen to train or program a new robot.”

One area Ben Amor is looking to investigate further is bi-manual grasping and manipulation by robots. Typically, robotic technologies employed in manufacturing operations use only one arm to perform various tasks. He wants to develop methods that give robots increased dexterity so they can match the ability of humans in using two hands and arms.


Written by Erik Wirtanen, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Top photo: Methods developed in Heni Ben Amor’s lab enable robot assistants to anticipate the actions of human co-workers and help whenever needed. Photo courtesy of ASU’s Interactive Robotics Lab.

image title

ASU's innovation is a benefit for society

ASU's innovative ways can help more people in Arizona, and beyond, to a degree.
ASU President Crow: Negative political rhetoric keeps me up at night.
January 13, 2016

President Crow cites university's many achievements in broadening access to college credit

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

In his annual address to the community, President Michael M. Crow said that Arizona State University’s innovative mindset requires collaboration and purpose, and it is driven by a responsibility to the community.

“We’re prepared to innovate to be helpful to your family, your business, your hope for your community,” he said.

“We also have public values that we’re protecting, which is to be lower cost and egalitarian in terms of our admission standards.”

Crow made these remarks Wednesday night during his annual Community Conversation at Galvin Playhouse on the Tempe Campus. The dialogue was built around the topic of “What is innovationASU topped the list of “most innovative schools” in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings for 2016 based on a survey of peers. College presidents, provosts and admissions deans around the country nominated up to 10 colleges or universities that are making the most innovative improvements to curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities. ?”

He said that ASU’s innovations show that the United States — itself an innovation in government when it was formed — has unlimited potential.

“In this moment when America needs a model for innovation — we have literally been able to move and innovate at light speed compared to a normal university,” Crow said.

Crow said that it’s difficult for universities to embrace innovation.

“University innovation is like an oxymoronic term. They’re only concerned with their niche,” he said.

ASU’s very model is innovative, Crow said, compared with universities that limit admissions and restrict programs.

“Some universities spend 10 years talking about whether they want to offer a degree program.”

Crow said that ASU rejected the old-fashioned model of university success.

“We were told we needed to raise admission standards, build a medical school and replicate everything everyone else did.” He said the traditional model wasn’t sufficient to meet the state’s needs.

He discussed several ways that ASU has broadened access to university credit, such as the Starbucks College Achievement ProgramThe Starbucks College Achievement Program offers full tuition reimbursement to employees who pursue an online degree through ASU. and the Global Freshmen AcademyThe Global Freshman Academy debuted in the fall semester. Anyone can take online classes and decide after completion whether they want to pay for the ASU credits, which are offered at a rate of $200 per hour.. While the former is open to Starbucks partners around the country and the latter to potential students around the world, they both also can can help Arizonans who want to pursue college credit, he said

“There are a million people in Arizona who started college and never finished,” he said.


Michael M. Crow
ASU President Michael M. Crow addresses the crowd during his 2016 Community Conversation inside the Galvin Playhouse on Tempe campus. Photos by Robin Kiyutelluk/Arizona State University


The public was invited to submit questions via Twitter with the hashtag #AskMichaelCrow. One question was, "What keeps you up at night?"

“Negative political rhetoric,” Crow said.

“People don’t really know what we have inherited — all these educational opportunities and artistic expressions and all the things we’ve got.

“Everyone is talking about how we’re collapsing and the country is not going ahead, and when you look at what we’ve been through, the civil war and the opening of the west, it’s just not the case."

But ASU’s students are not pessimistic, he said.

“When I talk to our kids I don’t get that sense. Maybe my elixir is being with them. They’re filled with this desire to make a difference.”

Another problem that keeps Crow up at night is the notion of fairness and equity.

“We still live in a society that has a lot of outcomes determined by your parents’ income and that’s an unfair thing.

“We need to do anything we can to find that student with talent — the rich kid, the poor kid, the homeless kid, the foster kid.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now