As we all learned from Terminator, artificially intelligent machines will one day conduct a systematic extermination of all human life forms and turn the Earth into one gigantic robot playground. But until that day comes, robots are our friends.
From heavy industry to the toy industry, devices that perform at least some automatic functions have been with us for quite some time. But in this roundup, we’ll look at robots that go far beyond the basics. Some benefit humanity as a whole. Some are already at work in the corporate world, handling complex or tedious tasks and situations that even a decade ago seemed impossible. Some point the way to a better future, others impress with their ability to mimic life forms, and still others make us feel a bit apprehensive as we come to grips with their tremendous power and potential.
No, there’s not a Terminator or Rosie the Robot in the bunch, though there is one that costs more than the annual economic output of some countries and is designed to function for a mere two years. And that alone is almost as frightening as the former. Or perhaps as ridiculous as the latter, depending on your perspective.
Cynics may suggest, and rightfully so, that he’s nothing but a walking, talking, dancing, jogging, stair-climbing, food-serving, object-grasping, human-mimicking Honda PR campaign. Yet the fact that ASIMO is able to do any of the above, never mind all of it, is reason enough for his inclusion in our robot roundup. Currently sporting a total of thirty-four degrees of freedom (and therefore no less than thirty-four servo motors) within his humanoid joints, the four-foot-tall, 119-pound ASIMO certainly looks the part in just about everything he does.
Perhaps one day in the next decade or two, if Honda engineers have their way, ASIMO will serve humanity as a fully autonomous caregiver or healthcare worker, rather than simply a sophisticated Honda advertisement. But he amazes even now, if just for his ability to allow us to glimpse into the future.
Even as we get set to swing into the second decade of the 21st century, fully autonomous (self-governing) robots – beyond the assembly line type – remain a rarity. Some robots look like they know what they’re doing, but the vast majority merely behave as their human operators tell them to behave. One notable exception to the rule is the UK National Oceanography Centre’s Autosub 3, a seven-foot-long torpedo-shaped submersible that’s currently pulling duty in the Antarctic, mapping the seabed and charting the undersides of ice floes in a venture to potentially help determine the cause of melting ice.
“Autosub is a completely autonomous robot,” says Autosub team leader Steve McPhail. “There are no connecting wires with the ship and no pilot. Autosub has to avoid collisions with the jagged ice overhead and the unknown seabed below, and return to a predefined rendezvous point, where we crane it back onboard the ship.”
We wish the Autosub well on its lonely but oh-so-important journey. Its earlier sister ship, the Autosub 2, was lost forever when it malfunctioned under Antarctica’s Fimbul Ice Shelf in 2005.
A 1992 spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, robotics research firm Boston Dynamics has since gained a number of high-end, high-tech playmates (the US Armed Forces, and Sony), and is now at the forefront of making creepy stuff that reminds us of scenes from various Star Wars movies. Though its four-legged concoction named BigDog doesn’t actually live among us because it’s still in the developmental womb, we felt it deserved mention here on account of its staggering potential and, well, watching it in action is way too cool.
BigDog is just one of several walking, animalistic robots Boston Dynamics has in its arsenal. Indeed, the company has just announced a new program whereby it will develop in conjunction with the US Military a shape-shifting centipede of sorts that deflates to squeeze through teeny-tiny spaces. Its name? The SquishBot. Check out BigDog and several other Boston Dynamics robots in action.
Kiva Mobile Fulfillment System
In some cases, a robot is only as good as the environment it’s dropped into. Fortunately, Kiva Systems has built some pretty darn good periphery around the pallet-moving robotic drive units that form the basis of its Kiva Mobile Fulfillment System. In a Kiva-powered warehouse, the goods reside in the center of the floor in shelving units, and humans are stationed on the perimeter. When an order is received, the Kiva robots spring into action and move, via a series of bar codes stuck on the floor and a wi-fi communications network, to position themselves under the racks containing that order’s merchandise. They then lift the rack and transport it to the human worker, who utilizes a series of scanners and lasers to choose the correct items from the rack. Once the item is scanned and verified, the Kiva robots automatically move the racks back to their original home. How efficient is Kiva? Efficient enough that businesses such as Walgreens, Staples, and online shoe retailer Zappos.com have become Kiva converts.
Robotic arms and cranes aren’t exactly new to the industrial world. But one that can lift more than a ton of dead weight is. In its M-2000iA/1200, Michigan-based FANUC Robotics has created what it claims is the “world’s largest and strongest six-axis robot” with the “longest reach and strongest wrist” yet developed. Designed for such tasks as accurately positioning automotive vehicle bodies and assembling heavy machine tool components, the unit is intended to replace manually controlled cranes. And, of course, it will be the muscle in the upcoming robot uprising, where crazed machines will wreak untold havoc on the human population of earth.