iCub, the Open-Source Robot Child

It takes a village to raise a robot. At least, that's the belief of the creators of iCub, a humanoid robot the size of a 3-1/2-year-old child, who are making its development entirely open-domain.

The iCub is the brainchild of a group of European universities led by the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa, who have been charged by the European Commission to develop a functioning humanoid child. They developed a 2-1/2-foot-tall, 70-pound robot child with 53 mechanical joints that allow it to move its head, neck, arms, fingers, eyes and legs. It can also feel with its fingertips, grip with its hands, and listen.

To find the best place to use the iCub to study embodied artificial cognition, they held an open call for proposals three years ago, with the intention of giving away six robots to universities or small research groups around the world. The robot has now jetted off to its first foster home, the Departments of Computing and Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College in London, which plan to study how humans use cognition to interact with their world.

However, for the home tinkerer, all of the specs needed to build iCub can be found online at robotcub.org, including all deliverables, source files, community feedback and additional support, as well as PDFs of the robot's hardware and software.

The project at Imperial College will be run by Professor Murray Shanahan, of the Department of Computing. According to Dr. Shanahan, "Nature developed cognition for us in order to make us better at interacting with the physical and social world. If we want to understand the nature of cognition better then we really need to understand it in the context of something that moves or interacts with objects. That is where iCub can help us."

The team will test their theories about cognition by hooking up a computer simulation of a brain to iCub. As it process information about the environment, it will send bursts of electrical energy to its motors that will move its arms, head, eyes and fingers to carry out very simple tasks. iCub has already learned to identify objects and look from one to another, to do gentle calisthenics, and -- as if it has skipped straight to adolescence -- to drum wildly.