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Cowardly 'Phobot' Steals Show at Amsterdam Robot Conference

A robot with a cowardly streak took top honors at a conference on human-robot interaction in Amsterdam on Saturday, winning the crowd over with antic displays intended to mimic human phobia.

The "Phobot," designed by a team of students from the University of Amsterdam, was voted the public's favorite at a competition of seven teams from technical universities around the world.

When first exposed to a fear-inspiring object — in this case a menacing larger robot — the Phobot retreats and then spins in circles in an apparent panic.

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Later, the robot is able to overcome its "fear" by beginning with exposure to small robots and working its way up to large ones — mimicking the psychological principle of "graded exposure."

"This robot is there as a sort of buddy to help a child having any kind of actual fear, doing it step by step," said team member Ork de Rooij.

"The child would say, 'Hey, not only am I scared, but this robot is also scared, so maybe we can help each other."'

All contestants were given the same set of Lego robotics — with light, sound, touch and ultrasound sensors worth about $250 — to work with. They each had National Instruments software as well.

Second place, and the jury's prize, went to "Pot Bot," which could be used to monitor potted plants and determine whether they need more water or sunlight.

It is a joint effort by Carnegie Mellon University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

"The robot acts as a mediator to make communication between humans and nature more fluid," said team leader Sonya Kwak.

The Pot Bot uses light detectors to find the strongest light source available, and then signals that information to people with two handlike front panels.

It uses a series of hanging lego strips at its sides — resembling wind chimes — to signal wind conditions. And it can spread the strips like wings in a display of gratitude resembling a curtsey when the plant receives water.

"The robot itself was not so sophisticated, but it had an artistic quality to it, and it was very different, very original," said organizer Christoph Bartneck of the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, explaining the jury decision.