Robots May Be Built as Companions, Expert Says

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Veloso said she doubts that she and her colleagues will create Word Cup champion robots by 2050 unless "we make dramatic progress," but that the field of robotics is moving along at a faster clip than she had in mind when the RoboCup concept was conceived in 1995.

Brian Duffy, a robotics researcher with Media Lab Europe in Dublin, Ireland who has participated in the RoboCup competitions, says the games work well by forcing people to integrate technologies into "coherent autonomous robot solutions."

"It also works quite well in popularizing what stage robot research is currently at and provides a compelling robot gaming scenario for the general public," he said.

State of Robotics

Although a robot the likes of C-3PO or the Brazilian soccer great Pelé are still a futuristic fantasy, the concept of human-like robots is currently very popular in Japan, said Burdick. "Japanese society is becoming very elderly and they think they will need more robots in the home to help out elderly people."

Honda Motor Co. of Japan is currently promoting what it calls the most advanced humanoid. Named ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), the robot can interpret the postures and gestures of humans and move independently in response.

The company says in a statement that ASIMO can "greet approaching people, follow them, move in the direction they indicate, and even recognize their faces and address them by name." The robot can also access information via the Internet and use it to answer people's questions (in Japanese) about the news and weather.

There are also robots on the consumer market such as the Roomba Intelligent FloorVac from iRobot, which performs the household chore of vacuuming. The robot is a commercial venture of computer scientists and engineers affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Cambridge.

Most robots in use today are designed to perform specialized tasks. Jean-Claude Latombe, director of the Robotics Lab at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, said that robots are becoming more diversified in manufacturing where they can, for example, perform multiple tasks on multiple models of cars on an assembly line.

Latombe also said that robots are showing promise as surgeons where precise, quick actions are needed. "Humans tend to be imprecise and don't react quickly," he said.

The first robot used in surgery, said Burdick, was for hip replacement. The surgeons determined that a robot could cut and rout out a hole in the hip for the replacement part with greater accuracy and precision than a surgeon, which made for a better-fitting hip.

Other specialized uses of robotics include putting them in environments considered dangerous for humans, such as monitoring nuclear reactors and exploring the surface of Mars. Additionally, the U.S. military is funding several projects that will use robots to perform tasks such as surveillance behind enemy lines.

This idea of having robots perform tasks considered hazardous for humans played itself out at the Carnegie Mellon robot gathering, where in addition to the soccer games, a suite of semi-autonomous robots crawled and slithered through the rubble of a simulated disaster site.

Organizers of the event hoped that eventually, when disasters happen, the use of robots will minimize risk to search-and-rescue workers while increasing victim survival rates.

Future Robots

According to Burdick, robots will become a part of every day life once five technological hurdles are cleared: computing power, sensor technology, power supply, motors, and smarts.

Computing power and sensor technologies are both rapidly improving and dropping in price, he said. Significant breakthroughs are needed in the other areas. Current robots last about an hour on a full charge and the current motors, or actuators, are cost-prohibitive.

As for the smarts, he likens their development to that of computer operating systems. At first they were no good, but they are getting "better and better," he said.

Latombe, who has the vision that someday a robot will water the garden, trim overgrown branches, and apply pesticides when they are required, said "we are years away from being able to tell a robot to maintain the garden and have it do whatever is needed."

But when eventually built, such a robot, said Latombe, it may not even look like a human. Rather he believes that humans will continue to inspire the field of robotics, but that future robots may look nothing like their source of inspiration.

Duffy at Media Lab Europe said that "from a purist perspective, a synthetic human is very far away and the reason is simple: A human is not a machine and vice versa. The idea to try and build a perfect robotic version of a human is inherently flawed. It constrains the machine to only be able to do what we can."

More National Geographic News Stories on Robots
Chile Desert to Prepare Robot for Life on Mars
Robots Designed to Show How Dinosaurs Moved
Tiny Flying Robots Modeled on Insects
Underwater Robot Tracks Elusive Jellyfish
Snakelike Robots May Fight Terror, Save Lives
Update: Third "Door" Found in Great Pyramid
Soccer Robots Compete for 6th Annual RoboCup
Scientists "Drive" Rats by Remote Control
Pilotless Planes Earn Their Wings in 21st-Century Warfare
Surgeons in U.S. Perform Operation in France Via Robot
Search-and-Rescue Robots Tested at New York Disaster Site
Novel Robot Being Tested for Mars Exploration

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