Robot chimp: Teaching apes to talk and humans to run

Controlled by trained chimps, robot with water cannon could teach humans a thing or two as well

The first thing you'll want to know about this story is that, as far as I can tell, it's not fake.

The second thing is that the guy at the heart of the story doesn't appear to be a crank, an overstimulated animal-rights activist or a misanthrope intent on fomenting rebellion among the great apes of Iowa in hopes of turning the deep Midwest into Planet of the Apes.

No, Ken Schweller is just a guy who built a robot out of lab tables, electric wheelchair parts and a rubber ape head, and who plans to turn control of the creepy mobile platform over to residents of the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines.

The Trust is a research center dedicated to studying the origins of language, culture, tools and other evidence of human civilization by tricking bonobos (once called"pygmy chimps") and orangutans into mimicking behaviors that may have helped lead our ancient human ancestors from the spiritual and intellectual emptiness of life as wild animals into an even greater emptiness as the species responsible for Fox News and Nickelodeon.

Ken Schweller, on the other hand, is a professor of computer science and psychology at Buena Vista University ("Iowa's accessibly scaled, eye-opening university) and creator of not one but two iterative versions of Robo Bonobo (I and II). He also created a number of wacky-sounding computer-science projects that look far more likely to grab the attention and imagination of budding computer scientists than "hello world" programming projects, or lectures outlining the impact of the syntax of PASCAL on the cultural norms of the Northern Midwest.

Another Schweller favorite is theclass room on Second Life that would give Schweller's Artificial Intelligence students a more visual and tactile impression of the personality they were trying to create in the process of building Turing Machine, for example. It's so much easier to build a fake human in an online environment in which all your classmates are avatars and it's hard to even tell which one is on autopilot for a classmate who went AFK for beers with his buds hours ago.

Depending on how party the weekend is, the Turing Machine could be the most intelligent thing in the class.

(Schweller and the class won $75,000 from the Sun MicroSystems Java programming contest for the version they wrote outside of Second Life.)

While his day job is teaching human students to speak geek, Schweller's avocation is teaching apes to communicate, at a facility that has been studying the language skills of bonobos and gorillas for more than 30 years.

If they throw poop accurately when they have only hands, what will they do with a robot?,

Past projects have focused on teaching apes to communicate using a board made up of symbols chimps could choose to "talk" without trying to pronounce human words with vocal equipment badly suited for it.

Language is only the first step, according to the Trust's summary of purpose.

As the center's primatology research advances to include higher cognitive processes such as language and self-awareness, it will study apes' ability to understand physics art and music as well as their ability to use language-simulating lexigrams in convincingly communicative ways in return for a banana.

Lexigrams are a series of symbols representing words in Yerkish, the artificial language taught to non-human apes.

Studying language in non-human species, of course, is serious science. You can tell by the 400 lexigrams the apes are able to recognize and use as partial controls for the artificial beast, and by the onboard water cannon apes will use to "interact" with increasingly damp humans on the outside.

The interface for the great ape killer-robot platform is a tablet computer with a home screen full of lexigrams and a full Internet connection.

Schweller is using Kickstarter – an online social-networking site for inventors and entrepreneurs to pitch for money from angel investors – to raise the $20,000 he needs to fund development of the interface.

RoboBonobo also has its own Twitter feed.

Eventually Schweller hopes to be able to give the Great Ape Center's 7 bonobos and 2 orangutans their own internet-connected keyboards that would automatically translate what they say into human.

The apps will also be able to control devices – the robot at first, largely for the attention it creates. Later that support could expand into self-service systems apes could use to feed themselves and similar systems.

"The funds will be used to design, program, harden and field test the apps with bonobo testers and to connect them to  robots and other external devices," Schweller's pitch on Kickstarter reads, right beneath the big picture of he and his students posing in a semicircle around a RoboBonobo prototype that looks like a severed bonobo head on a three-shelf rolling table. "Please consider supporting us.  It's not as wacky as it may sound."

Actually it's just as wacky as it might sound. It's also a creative way to entice bonobos and computer science students to study each other, master the robotic essence of great ape-hood, build seriously original apps in computer-science classes whose assigned projects are usually routinely boring, to do some original work demonstrating the skills and understanding of non-humans in ways that attract lots of attention from other humans who might make up for the criminal lack of budget endemic to nearly all Midwest computer science programs interested in building robotic remote-control toys for monkeys.

Robo Bonobo is as much a proof of concept for funding-free primatological and computer-science research as it is a study of how well bonobos can understand the concept of "robot" and figure out on their own how much mayhem it could cause.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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