This Week In Bots: Don't Fear The Robot

Bot Vid: The Robot Hand Gets Real


DARPA and Sandia National Laboratories have made another robotic hand that's incredibly human-like in its range of motion. It's also modular, so finger units can be replaced if they're damaged or you need a specialist tool. The hand, which can be operated as a puppet in a form of telepresence was designed to aid in the defusing of IEDs so that human operators can remain a safe distance away, but advances of this magnitude will certainly play into android development and artificial limb science too.

Bot Vid: The Cute Chameleon Worm Bot


A soft liquid-muscled robot that can change color to camouflage itself? If that's the stuff of your nightmares don't read on... If you're still reading, then you'll be interested to note this is the latest development in soft-bodied, vaguely octopus like robots developed at Harvard. Inspired by the movements of squid and octopi and their ability to adjust cells in their skin so they change color, the latest robot uses micro-channels in its surface that have various colors of dye pumped into them. Researchers have discovered you don't need much for good hiding-powers, and they can even change the dye's temperature to make it hide against infra-red vision systems. Applications are almost endless, although spy bots would seem the first likely use.

Bot Vid: The Creepy Indestructible Worm Bot


Meet Meshworm, who's not actually indestructible...but is incredibly resilient when walloped with a hammer or thrown a long distance onto a hard surface. It's a DARPA-supported MIT project, and it uses the same peristaltic motion principle that worms and snails use. The Meshworm is at present very simple, but it does demonstrate that you can make soft-body robots, in this case with a soft polymer body and soft nickel-titanium "muscles," out of malleable but long-lived materials. In this way, it's another small step for the future of robotics, with soft robots having potential uses in all sorts of areas from medicine to search and rescue.

Bot News

iPad Telepresence. We reported on one plan to develop an iPad-based telepresence robot a year ago, and although it looks like that project never made it to market a new effort from Double Robotics is now available on pre-order for $2,000. It's similar to other efforts, but comes at a much cheaper cost than many competing telepresence droids. Expect to see one rolling through your company's executive corridors any time soon...

iRobot's New Gear. iRobot, probably the best-known robot maker among the general public, has just released a couple of new household cleaning machines. The Looj 330 is an update to its earlier remote-controlled gutter-cleaning robot that possesses a formidable array of attachments to let it scoop gutters clean and even adaptively react to debris it senses. The Roomba 600 vacuum cleaner is a similar evolution, with better brushes so it's more effective at carpet fluff and the like, and improved airflow into its debris bins.

Shark-Tracking Surfbot. As part of an international census of marine life called Tagging of Pacific Predators, a robot is surfing the waves in the seas off the coast of San Francisco in search of sharks. It's a sensor-laden wave gliding robot designed to navigate around looking for great white sharks and return data on their movements.

Bot Futures: Don't Fear The Robot

Over recent months we've explored some very complex issues about the future of robotics here in TWiB. The discussion here is part of a bigger debate that's beginning to be had in the media as it becomes clear our near future society is going to be more and more peopled by robots. For some this is scary stuff, and if you google the word "robocalypse" you'll find as many posts that seriously worry about this situation as those that take it lightly.

The complex changes robots may cause in our lives are even prompting art—and artist Lin Xin has an exhibition running now in Shanghai that explores how robots simulate emotions, just as humans may be becoming more robotic.

The blog of the Smithsonian magazine tackles one aspect of the feared robocalypse in a light-hearted but interesting post this week, inciting us to stop worrying. It's centered on fears that military and other intelligent robots will at some point begin a revolution and suppress mankind—possibly even for our own good, at least as determined by their cool steely logic. It's a bit of an imaginative stretch, the argument goes, and we could probably defeat a robo-uprising by using nuclear-seeded electromagnetic pulses.

Comedy science fiction aside, any worries about intelligent robotic revolution along the lines of Terminator's Skynet should be far distant—we're barely beginning to make functionally useful and very artificially unintelligent devices to help us around the home or in other places like hospitals. By the time we are creating smart, intelligent machines we'll have worked out how to design them to be safe.

And there's a different and fascinating angle to be considered in a recent article by HuffPo's Amanda Slavin: Robots may actually help you feel human. Slavin was recently given a demonstration of a neat, affordable fun robot toy that can be controlled by iPhone. Made by Romotive, the toy excited Slavin with the powers of technology and prompted her to think it's time to change our worries about robots. Many visionaries, she notes, "want a robot in every home and have ideas to use robots to bring people closer together, using technology to support relationships and open new doors of opportunities." And Slavin points out that while we worry our smartphone and Facebook addiction is damaging our relationships, it's actually down to us to decide to make the tech work for us rather than us being slaves to technology. Used in the right way technology frees us up from more and more mundane tasks.

As robots become more popular (taking over dangerous or boring jobs, standing in for us at the office via telepresence and even, as the New York Times' Nick Bilton pointed out this week, exploring another world for us), Slavin's argument can easily be extended to point out that a robot-heavy society could actually give us more time to just get on with the job of being human—the creative, imaginative, creatures that we really are.

[Image: Flickr user johngreenaway]

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

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