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3 years ago

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Robots! Are Rosie,

Robots! Are Rosie, Voltron, Bender and their kin finally coming into their own? For decades (if not centuries), futurists, writers and inventors have promised that robotic help—mechanized beings ready to serve as soldiers, maids, chauffeurs—is just on the horizon. In 1988 pundits predicted “convenience robots” would be part of our everyday life by the year 2000. But that horizon keeps receding. So far, more time has been spent angsting over whether robots will take over the world than actually making use of them. But advances in the last five years may signal that the age of the robot has at last arrived, and we may be on the brink of a “Cambrian explosion” in robotic evolution. Really. This time we mean it. We’ve had effective industrial robots for some time—strong, fast, accurate, tethered to one spot, and walled off from the co-workers they could potentially maim. This century is seeing the rapid development of smaller, mobile robots with a far wider range of capabilities. Now robots are gentle enough to help nursing home patients into or out of bed, and can come equipped with electronic “skin” responsive to the lightest touch. At the more muscular end of the scale, the Department of 48

Left: Multicopter drone being used to record archaeological sites, Cerro Chepen, Peru. Below: 3D model of the excavation area at Chan Chan produced with photos taken by the multicopter. Photos courtesy of Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, PhD, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Defense’s DARPA Robotics Challenge is spurring the development of robot strength, dexterity, mobility, and “supervised autonomy” in decision making, resulting, for example, in headless robotic pack mules (more formally known as the “Legged Squad Support System”) that can carry 400 pounds over rugged terrain. They have also demoed the the first guntoting robots, either controlled by a remote operator or programmed to fire on their own. Undersea, amphibious snake robots can explore the depths of the ocean, while autonomous robot jellyfish conduct military surveillance. Researchers are creating cyborg roaches and miniature flying robots to explore collapsed buildings looking for survivors. Medical technologists are enlisting robots as surgical assistants and to enable doctors to practice poking around in virtual brains before they tackle real ones. The first robots to become truly ubiquitous may be self-driving cars—legal in three states and the District of Columbia, and projected to transform the automotive industry, urban design and our transportation grid. Robots are becoming more human: walking (even on unstable surfaces like sand), dancing (including Gangnam style, of course), sitting, walking and using facial expressions. It is, after all, functional for robots to be humanoid in a world created for humans to navigate. And people may not be comfortable interacting with robots until they are a bit more like us. Zoe, a digital visage, has the ability to express human emotions on demand—which could help create computers (and robots) that people can actually converse with. Perhaps surprisingly, one emerging role for robots is serving as companions—providing a supplement to or substitute for human interaction. Projo is programmed to be the “ideal peer 49

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