This Week In Bots: Robots, They're Just Like Us!

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Bot Vid: Robo-barber

For charity a chap named Tim subjected himself to an interesting treat: He got his head shaved by a remote-controlled robot. Tim did it for the St Baldrick's Foundation, which searches for cures for leukemia. The device was a Multi-Arm Unmanned Ground Vehicle from IAI, which has three cameras, three arms, and 29 degrees of freedom.

Bot Vid: Robo-ring

Scientists at Keio university in Japan are trying an unusual experiment in robotic enhancement of man-machine communications. By unusual, we mean really odd: PYGMY rings are Arduino-powered, battery and Bluetooth-sporting electronic jewelry designed to add a whole new dimension to communication. Imagine if they became popular, and played an important role in the dating game. Crazy, perhaps, but it's pretty likely that our mobile devices like smartphones will one day be communicating to other nearby devices for all sorts of reasons, and if it offers an enhanced channel for expressing oneself, then why not?

Bot Vid: Tiny robo-tank

Small robots are invading the battlefield in increasing numbers, but they're not exactly optimized for off-road travel, despite their ruggedness. DARPA and iRobot are busy working to fix this, and the video below shows one obvious way to boost the powers of robots like the 510 PackBot—by adding in tank-like suspension systems in its caterpillar tracks. It's all part of a bigger program to make military bots more agile, faster, and more resistant to damage traveling across uneven terrain.

Bot News

Robotic prostate surgery, on the cheap. A British man today is having "pioneering" surgery to remove a cancerous prostate gland via a robot. Unlike bulky expensive systems like Da Vinci, the Japanese Kymerax robot is only about £90,000 and handheld. But it nonetheless offers all the benefits of robot surgery like small incisions, degrees of freedom far beyond the rotational capabilities of limited human hands, and physical feedback to the surgeon. 

Navy's "Hunger Games" robot arena. The U.S. Navy has a new artificial test environment for its potential robot warriors and drones, the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research. Specifically designed to test how robots and humans can fight alongside each other, the "Hunger Games"-like facility is laced with high-speed cameras and sensors to capture the wargaming that goes on in its realistic environments (like a tropical southeast Asian rainforest) and claims to have the largest "capture volume" in existence. 

Also check out the amazing robot jellyfish that can swim forever monitoring the oceans, and Cory Kidd's effort to cure obesity with the aid of robots!

Bot Futures: Robots like you or robots like Ar-Too?

The Wall Street Journal this week explores an interesting topic: The only real robots to have invaded our homes currently are the tiny floor-cleaning and mopping droids from companies like iRobot, and they're absolutely not like the anthropomorphic robots of our science-fictional dreams. One of the most successful health care robots in use is a robotic seal, and one of the most powerful research robots currently available, PR2 from Willow Garage (shown above), is slightly human-esque, but mainly looks like a refrigerator on wheels.

So do our future life-assisting robots actually need to look like us? 

It's a fascinating question, and it contains a multitude of dimensions. For example, the Navy's research into a humanoid firefighting robot called SAFFiR makes a great amount of sense: The cramped spaces aboard a ship or submarine are an uneasy blend of utilitarian design and human need, and they're not necessarily the friendliest environment to inject a rolling wheeled or tracked robot into—the humanoid robot is a better fit.

Meanwhile Aldebaran Robotics' new Romeo robot is very much human-shaped, and resembles a child, vaguely. The robot's projected uses marry with this well, because it's designed to assist the elderly or ill in their daily activities—being roughly human shaped and sized means Romeo can do things like open doors, drawers, and closets and use human tools to assist the humans it'll be working with.

But making humanoid robots requires some very complex engineering, largely concerned with making the things walk, run, and turn like a human does. The computing and sensing needed to move like this is significant (look at how the famous Asimo fell over so many times), to say nothing of the amount of energy the robot burns through this means of locomotion. And then there's the odd issue of robot "trust" by humans: If you're designing a robot to look like a human, you probably have to invest in giving it an expressive face or body language so that people really can identify with it.

But if your service bot is distinctly non-human-looking, then perhaps a simpler way to express its "emotions" or, more simply, needs and intentions will suffice. For example, the famous R2-D2—who sprang from the mind of a very farsighted visionary—seems to communicate his intentions very well, and audiences have fallen in love with the doughty dustbin-shaped droid for over 30 years now. And more recently, the butler bot from Caprica was disinctly non-android shaped, but still served his purpose as security monitor and meeter-and-greeter. 

The WSJ doesn't draw many conclusions, but we know that much research is going on into making robots expressive, walk like us, and talk and even dance like us. But because different use cases maybe suit different robot morphologies when the robot future really does arrive, maybe we'll be working with a blend of both practical odd-shaped R2-D2 service droids and much more human C3POs, exactly as Ralph McQuarrie's image at the top of this post suggests. Star Wars may, after all, be a glimpse of the future.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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