02 April 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's engineers are creating "humanoids" that can save lives or accidentally kill you, or equipping them with attractive faces, voices and behavior so people fall in love with Thai robots.



Thais are also appearing on the technological map by winning fierce local and international contests, and visitors are invited to watch the competition or view Thailand's robots at exhibitions.



"This robot is female in form, the external appearance," Dr. Thavida Maneewarn,
Deputy Director of Research at the prestigious Institute of Field Robotics, says in an interview while introducing her pink-and-white robot named NAMO -- an abbreviation for Novel Articulated Mobile Platform.



"Her voice is a woman. When we first designed her, we designed her to be roughly like a six-year-old girl. So we want her to have that ability, that level, like a six-year-old," Thavida says in her institute's robotics lab where she teaches at King Mongkut's University of Technology across the river from Bangkok in Thonburi. (http://fibo.kmutt.ac.th/fiboweb07/eng/index.php)



"She has a very robotic face. Like a solid, white plastic face," Thavida says, indicating NAMO's three camera eyes and "cosmetic" bubble-shaped ears.



"I like a robot to look friendly, but still look like a robot, like a machine, but not scary. I don't really like a robot that is human-like, which knows how to do those muscle movements, and replicate a human, because it is kinda scary.



"So what I want to do, is make a robot that looks clean, looks friendly, but does not overly replicate a human, so people still see it as a robot," says Thavida, 39, who is also president of the Thai Robotics Society.



Thavida received her PhD. in Electrical Engineering, in Robotics and Control, at the University of Washington in 2000 with a dissertation titled: "Haptic Feedback of Manipulator Kinematic Conditioning for Teleoperation."



But she also shares the superstitions of many Thais.



"I personally am really afraid of ghosts," she reluctantly admits.



"When I was studying in the States, I usually worked at night alone on the fourth floor, the top floor of the building, and I was the only person. Back then, the robot's name was Miss Marple. So I was programming Miss Marple. Every time, I would just worry that one day she was going to speak something that I didn't program her to say."



After completing her studies in Washington state, Thavida returned to Bangkok, the city of her birth.



She now reminds students in her two-year Master's program at the university not to invoke metaphysical forces over science.



"Because I'm a teacher, I will have to scold students like, 'Oh, don't believe in those things.' It is just sometimes when a robot doesn't work, they try to blame it on some kind of spirit, and they put flowers or burn incense, things like that, at the competition," while praying to win a prize.



"I try to tell them, 'It's OK to do it, but just don't believe that it is not your fault that the robot is not turning on'."



Robots can also kill.



Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov invented "Three Laws of Robotics" which emphasize how "a robot may not injure a human being." (http://www.auburn.edu/~vestmon/robotics.html)



But the "laws" are rarely programmed into a robot's code.



"It should be, but no one is actually sitting down and doing it. When I build a robot, we put things together and make it move, but there is no governing law yet," Thavida says.



"I didn't write the first line of my code: 'Don't kill me.' I don't do that. So in theory it can kill me.



"You want a robot to serve you coffee, or walk in a work place, so you have to make sure there is a certain safety protocol, that the robot should stop when it is about to smack into someone.



"Robots can easily hurt you. Like look at that one," Thavida says, pointing at NAMO. "If she ran quickly into you..."



A worst-case scenario is when a robot goes haywire, and uncontrollably gyrates, faster and faster, with sharp metal extensions flailing akimbo.



"When things go out of control -- like sometimes a robot is spinning, out of control, when we test it and something is wrong and it's spinning -- and things like that, can actually hurt people," she says.



"My first robot, that I worked on when I came back from the States and started working here, it was about five meters tall. So that one can actually kill me. It's in a factory today.



"It's designed to pick up a metal bar. It is a huge robotic arm. That's really scary."



Students in her class can graduate with a Master's of Science in Robotics and Automation, or a Master's of Engineering in Robotics and Automation.



"This is our humanoid," Thavida says, introducing a black metallic robot named Kanok, which has a day-glow pink wig plunked on its head for fun.



Kanok is a "humanoid robot, because it has two legs, arms, and a head, just like a human. For each leg, he has a lot of motors, so that he can walk.



"We designed this guy to be fully autonomous, which means that we have no human control at all. He was originally designed to play soccer, so when I turn him on, he is just going to look for a ball."



Kanok is different from the female "semi-humanoid" NAMO who is remote-controlled -- "basically like a puppet" -- with wheels instead of legs.



"NAMO is designed to be a public relations robot, so her main purpose is how to be what, in Thai, we call 'a pretty'. When you go to an expo, you have the cute girl who tries to sell your product. So that's NAMO.



"So if you want to sell a certain thing, we have to design her pose, which means the motion, that represents the kind of thing that she wants to sell.



"If she wants to sell food, she will do some cooking, tasting, things like that. She can do the 'sawadee' gesture like the Thai greetings, or 'wai'. She can wave. She can give things to people."



Nearby, a "snake robot" rests on her laboratory's floor.



"A snake, or a chain-like type of robot, is quite beautiful because it can do various forms of movements. For example, you can see a snake moving sideways. But with that same mechanism, you can do the caterpillar movement.



"You can use it as an elephant trunk to grab objects. Or you can use it as a squid tentacle. You can go through a narrow space. You can climb trees. You can climb stairs. Or you can even go through a pipe. So it is very versatile," she says.



Thavida's yearning for robots began as a child, and is a story of loneliness and insecurity solved by inspiration and enthusiasm.



"It is kind of sad. I am the only child. So I felt like one day I'm going to be alone in this world.



"So I decided that OK, if I can make a robot, I can make sure that I have someone to be with when I'm older. That was my first inspiration. I was probably 10 years old."



As a teen, she read Japanese manga, and became attracted to the comic books' robotic fighters.



"I liked designing robots, drawing pictures of robots with features. Like Japanese manga, your robot has to have features to fight. From that point, I asked myself what do I need to do, to be able to make robots?"



Learning how to build robots is vital for Thailand's industrial development and also for students who want good jobs, she says.



"A lot of companies in Thailand need automation development. For example, this is a prototype of the automation system we use for making magnets inside the hard disk drive. My student built this."



Graduates can become automation engineers, teach at a technical college or do other robot-related work, though the sector skews male.



"In our robotics program, we don't have many female students. We have only maybe like two students per year" in a class of 10 or 12 pupils.



"We have a lot of female students in engineering, as undergraduates. But I think for people to pursue their higher education, like a Master's degree in robotics, for some reason we have less female students that want to go into this field."



Thai students and other robotics engineers have also been winning prizes at international contests, despite a lack of funding for research and development.



In July 2011, for example, Thailand's team won second place in the World Robocup, which was held this year in Istanbul, Turkey. (http://www.robocup2011.org/en/)



"It is like an Olympics of robots," Thavida says.



Her students won second place in the "humanoid soccer" contest, using black metal Kanok and another robot as a pair of players.



Thailand has more than 10 major robotics labs, and a growing number of "roboticists" including teachers, engineers or industrialists, she says.



"But we are the only place that offers the specialized degree in robotics and automation in Master and PhD level."



To build a robot takes a few months, and students can form a team including "one mechanical design person, an electrical person, and a software person" plus others if required, Thavida says.



Napha Daosodsai, 24, is one of Thavida's students and is emotionally involved in her robot.



"My thesis is about how the robot shows emotions. I want to create the robot that can have the relationship with humans, so I want the robot to be my friend. Robots have no emotions by themselves, it is actually all a program and how to program for it," Napha says in an interview during class.



"A human's love for the robot can be the real thing. But for the robot to love the human, I'm not sure if the programming can program the robot so it can have love."



When people fall in love with a robot, "that's OK," Napha says, because humanoids "can help people with their feelings. Like an autistic child that uses a robot. The robot can respond to the emotion that the child likes. If the robot smiles to the child, the child can smile back to it.



"My thesis is about the expressions of the robot's face. Happy, sad, angry," and other recognizable feelings," Napha says.



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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.



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(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)