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This Week In Bots: Hollywood's Next Big Star Could Be A Robot

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Bot Vid: The Crashable Flying Machine

Flying robots are all the rage--it seems everyone loves a good drone now. But one issue with flying robots is that at some point they must come down, and if that's due to a crash or an accidental collision you'd prefer them to get right back in the air again. That's something researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have been looking at, resulting in an amazing prototype with legs that can right the machine after a "crash," using caged rotors, and a light carbon fiber frame. This type of tech will be useful for both military flying machines and search and rescue bots--both of which operate in hazardous environments.

Bot Vid: Robots Make Movies

Robots are already penetrating many industries, but one that you may have overlooked is the movie industry, where robots are swiftly taking position behind the scenes--most typically in motion control of cameras. This is a precision movement trick that allows a scene to be filmed several times over from precisely the same camera position, which enables some of the more truly astonishing special effects in movies like upcoming The Hobbit. The Automaton blog points us to a particularly amazing example from a German company called The Marmalade that's used the technique to create amazing new high-speed effects. The most exciting thing is that the future of movie robotics is still in its infancy.

Bot News

NASA Bot Competition. Tomorrow, on June 16th, NASA's holding a robot competition at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute where teams will compete for a share in a prize of $1.5 million from NASA's own pocket. It's the Sample Return Challenge, part of NASA's bigger Centennial Challenges prize competition, and it's all about designing the next gen of explorer robots for finding out about the planets and moons in our solar system. To this end, the game is a simplified quest to navigate autonomously, locate, grab, and retrieve test objects ("planetary samples") and return them. Very soon now NASA's own rover robot Curiosity will be doing plenty of this sort of task on the surface of Mars.

GE's Wind Turbine Bot. Wind turbines have promise as green energy sources, but the structures tend to be both massive and unforgiving--servicing the huge machines isn't necessarily easy, particularly when it comes to their blades. That's why GE has invented its own remote-control robot that vacuums itself onto a wind turbine and can climb its structure in minutes, versus the hours needed for a human, where it can then rove over the blade to inspect it with a wireless camera.

Robots Working With Humans. One of the issues of more robots in the workplace is that they're strong and dangerous, and can hurt people who do something unexpected in the robot's space. That's something the CSAIL lab at MIT has been working on, now even teaching robots to adapt to how humans do repetitive tasks with individual flair by dressing workers on an airplane production line in motion-capture suits. The goal is to make robots more intelligent, lighter, and safer to integrate tightly into the workspace alongside people.

Uncanny Valley. This is a phrase oft used when describing some very real-looking humanoid robots. It's the point at which robots become weirdly human-like, rather than simply robotic-looking, and it was an idea first presented by Japanese researcher Yasahiro Mori 42 years ago. Now a brand-new authorized translation into English, reviewed by Mori himself, has just been published making the paper truly accessible to Western audiences for the first time. Despite 42 years of innovation, it's still a hugely important and relevant piece of work and worth a read. 

Bot Futures: Robots In Movies

Glance back through this week's post and note three things: Robots are becoming more commonplace in many industries including the movies; robots are better at working with humans; and Uncanny Valley. Then remember the media frenzy stirred up around current blockbuster movie Prometheus.

In particular, Michael Fassbender as one of Ridley Scott's characteristic eerily unsettling androids, David, has caught the world's attention. Fassbender's performance is feted as one of the best in the movie, partly because he portrays a machine that is creepily human while quite definitely not being so--the character of David is exploring uncanny valley from the other side, if you like.

Naturally this gives us a rather unusual, and almost surprisingly obvious question to ask: What if in a future movie like this Fassbender's part was played by a robot? 

Before you pooh-pooh the idea watch this, a performance of humanoid droid HPR4C from 2010.

Did you see how the little kick step portion in the middle looked so human, and easily surpassed the dancing efforts of many a tipsy uncle at weddings? That machine is already more advanced than in the video clip, and if you extrapolate the advances in its ability to move like a human a few more years, it's possible the robot's descendants will be convincingly human, particularly if you combine the ideas of human-like torsos from Geminoid robots and the emotion-presenting powers of machines from Hanson Robotics.

Imagine a Ridley Scott film in five years, starring Ewan--a real droid actor portraying a fictional droid in another part of the Alien film cycle. How would that make the audience feel? Would it add to the suspense? What would actors unions across the world have to say about it?

Given that we're making droids more realistic, and that artifical intelligence is developing continuously, if slowly, that scenario isn't too beyond the pale. After all, entirely digital WALL-E captured a billion hearts when it debuted.

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

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