Fast Company

This Week In Bots: Real-Life Terminators, Titanic-Preserving Robots, Machine-Made Sushi, And Other Mind-Bending Tales

This week the U.S. military took one step toward making the freakish humanoid robots of Arnold Schwarzenneger's Terminator films a reality. For real. Thank heavens there's friendlier (and tastier!) bot news, too.

petman

Bot Vid: DARPA's New Pet Is Petman

DARPA just announced its most recent Robotics Challenge, a "game" that solicits innovative solutions to hypothetical future war problems. Mere moments later ... it announced a winner! What gives? Well, since the new Challenge was for humanoid robots, and DARPA is funding a hugely advanced Terminator-like machine from Boston Dynamics called PETMAN....it'll be of no surprise to learn PETMAN is the winner. To celebrate, there's a new PETMAN video to send Arnie-like chills right up your spine.

Bot Vid: Sushi Bot

Sushi is an art--just check out the astonishingly charming film Jiro Dreams of Sushi for proof--but it's also a delicious kind of food with global popularity, prompting mechanization of the delicate production process to suit the mass market. Cue Suzumo company's new SushiBots, which can kick out up to 3,600 maki rolls an hour, all with the reported subtle touches that a human would apply, without cutting so much as a grain of rice.

Bot Vid: Shapely Balls

Once considered by the world's thinkers to be the "perfect" shape, a sphere is evidently a pretty ideal form for many obejcts to take, because it can roll and smoothly be transported through chutes and pipes as well as being structurally strong. Now there's a bot that borrows the sphere aesthetic and marries it to a standard hexapod walking system to make a compound machine that can maneuver using three different modes dependent on terrain and user requirements. It's called MorpHex.

Bot News

Robots to protect the Titanic. Concerned that the effects of nearby shipping and tourist deep-dive vessels visiting the site are causing the wreck to rapidly degrade, the original discoverer of the Titanic's broken body on the floor of the Atlantic ocean, Robert Ballard, is now proposing that a fleet of deep-sea robots permanently "man" the location. They would paint the vessel with anti-fouling paint so that bacteria wouldn't eat any more of its iron skin and also monitor human visitor missions to make sure they don't touch the wreck or damage it in any way. As of now, the 100 year-old shipwreck is a UNESCO-protected heritage site.

Did NASA's robot find life on Mars in 1976? The robot Viking missions were a striking and powerful symbol of our early successes in space exploration, landing on the distant surface of Mars in the mid-'70s and returning photographs and science data from Mars that were the most revelatory ever about its makeup and life-bearing potential. At the time scientists concluded its experiments designed to search for the evidence of life drew a blank. But now new analysis of the data (which survives as printouts) has suggested that there really was evidence of complex behavior indicative of life in the soil samples the doughty little robot investigated. And if we want proof, the University of Southern California team suggests, all we need to do is fly a sufficiently powerful microscope to Mars...and we'd see microbes.

UAVs get a new launch trick. Utah Water Research scientists have looked at the rather tricky question of how best to launch surveillance drones into the air, and have come up with a fabulously biblical solution: A slingshot launch system. Their bungee-slingshot UAVs are being used to map the environment. 

Bot Futures: Robot production line workers

The ongoing, sticky mess involving worker conditions in Foxconn's plants in China has this week resulted in almost unprecedented access for a journalist to the iPad production line. What we see is a highly human-centered process, but with countless pieces of machinery assisting almost every step of the assembly:

We know that Western public condemnation of worker conditions has pushed Apple to make unmatched efforts to improve the situation (even though much of the "condemnation" may be a little misplaced, particularly when it comes to worker salaries of "$14 a day," due to misunderstanding global currency economics), but it's definitely evident that the production line jobs are tedious and repetitive to the nth degree. That's something Foxconn's CEO has pledged to change, by augmenting his factories with still more robotic assistance.

But the rise of China as a manufacturing force for all sorts of goods, not just electronics, may actually change the local and global stage of robotic workers. That's partly because of rising wages, which make 24-hour-reliable robots more efficient employees, partly due to the improved perfection a robot can achieve, and partly due to international criticisms of Chinese working conditions. Kuka robots, Europe's most successful maker of industrial bots, is now reported to be building a Chinese hub...making 5,000 robots a year in the nation instead of the 1,000 or so it was making just two years ago. Other robot firms across the EU, in Japan, and the U.S. are also predicting rapid growth in China's demand for robot production line units, and this rush is pushing the global market value of industrial robots skyrocketing to about $41 billion by 2020. China may swifty outpace Japan and South Korea as the most robotized nation.

Which is both good news and bad news for Chinese workers. What if the robots don't just displace workers from tedious or dangerous roles into ones where humans excell and robots' can't match just yet (such as quality assurance) but displace them out of work? And then there's a bigger question of the rise of robotic workers across the world. Some vocal Apple critics demaned that it reposition its manufacturing facilities in the U.S.--but can you picture a future where Apple did this, but peopled its floors with thousands upon thousands of robot workers, rather than fleshy ones? This could get complicated for the Teamsters.

[Image: DARPA]

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