Winnipeg Free Press: University’s robotics team ready to shoot some hoops

Her name is Jennifer.

She’s about a foot-and-a-half tall with glowing blue eyes, and she’s capable of throwing a ping-pong ball through a hoop about 15 centimetres away.

It might not seem an impressive task for a human, but Jennifer is a humanoid robot programmed by the University of Manitoba’s Autonomous Agents Laboratory, and she’s getting ready to compete at the 2017 HuroCup Games, the world’s most challenging competition for automatons of her kind.

“It’s like the Olympics for humanoid robots,” said Amir Hosseinmemar, a PhD candidate in computer science and robotics at the university.

“From a laymen’s standpoint, a humanoid robot is one with a similar body type to you and I. It balances itself on its limbs, it has eyes mounted on the front of its head. It doesn’t have an eye at the back of its head for convenience sake,” said John Anderson, the head of the university’s computer science department.

In order for humanoids to accomplish their goals — like throwing tiny balls through tiny hoops — being able to “see” and perceive external changes is essential. So Anderson and the robotics team brought in a ringer from China’s Harbin Engineering University to help improve the humanoid’s accuracy and localized vision technology, enhancing its ability to recognize the basket and respond to other stimuli.

Qiuting Gong, 21, is one of more than 500 students working with Canadian universities through Mitacs Globalink, a summer internship program funded by the federal government and by universities across the county.

For 12 weeks this summer, Gong is working to make the humanoids in the lab more accurate shooters. When her internship started, the humanoids hit between 60 to 70 per cent of their shots, an average that would put an NBA player among the league leaders in field goal percentage. By the time the HuroCup Games come around later this month, Gong hopes that figure will be closer to 90 per cent and, eventually, she hopes the machine will be able to knock down shots from greater distances and under various external conditions.

While creating a robot with the free-throw shooting proficiency of Steve Nash is an admirable goal in itself, the ultimate aim of the lab is to build humanoids capable of performing human tasks that people do every day. Gong and the lab’s work is less about creating an artificial NBA player than it is about programming the simple tasks of seeing a ball, picking it up and putting it where it needs to go.

The HuroCup and other tournaments like it are a chance for humanoids to establish new benchmarks for human-like ability; one year, the robots could launch ping-pong balls. Once technological advancements make possible the launch of actual basketballs, that will become the new norm.

But the ultimate aim of the humanoid lab isn’t just to create athletic robots. Down the road, the hope is that humanoids will be able to perform tasks otherwise dangerous to humans, such as entering burning buildings or accident sites.

“Today throwing balls, tomorrow saving lives,” said Iman Yahyaie, Mitacs’ regional director of business development.

That idea, of course, is significantly far off, Anderson said. The humanoids around the world are far from perfect and still have much to learn before such goals are attainable.

For now, the focus is on slowly improving the humanoid technology and, for Gong, that means improving Jennifer’s accuracy from the free-throw line ahead of the upcoming competition.

“It’s easy for us as humans,” Hosseinmemar said, looking on after the knee-high robot hit its third shot in a row. “For robots, it’s much harder.”

The 2017 HuroCup Games take place in Taiwan, Aug. 23-27.

By: Ben Waldman