Sitting in my spare bathroom is a large device dubbed a Cat Robot, and though it’s not as sophisticated-looking as, say, an automobile production line spot-welding robot, let alone a Transformer, this robotic gizmo is a blessing. Calmly, patiently, every day, it saves me the bother of raking out my cat’s litter tray by robotically doing it for me. This simple device shows just how close the fabled science-fictional robotic future really is.
We’ve been promised homes and workplaces peopled (if you can say that) with robots that relieve the drudgery for decades, but it never seems to arrive. But news from Panasonic is helping to convince me that it’s a future that’s actually just around the corner. Because Panasonic, in concert with Japan’s IRT Research Institute has revealed it’s working on a dishwashing robot dubbed KAR (Kitchen Assistant Robot.) It’s got 18 different sensors in its hand, can automatically determine the size and shape of dishes, pick up individual bits of crockery from a stack, can do plenty of other things besides dishes, and it may be a consumer product within five years. Sounds silly to you? Who doesn’t hate dishwashing, or, for that matter, loading/unloading a dishwasher (itself a very simple robot)? And imagine a simpler version helping out in busy restaurants, or catering facilities in large factories.
On a different robotic front, M.I.T has recently shown the latest version of it’s Huggable series of telepresence caring devices. If you can overlook the slight creepiness of an intelligent teddy bear, inside the device’s soft fur is a highly advanced robot. It’s peppered with touch sensors, has webcams for eyes, a speaker behind its snout, and a sophisticated motor assembly. It’s designed to react to the user’s touch, and can even deliver remote telepresence hugs: one distant bear can be moved, making another copy its movements. Huggable is aimed at situations like healthcare, where children could benefit from the companionship it offers.
Similarly there’s plenty of research being carried out in Japan on robotic assistance for the elderly–a pressing issue in Japan where populational dynamics have left the average age creeping ever upwards. The Mamoru robot from Tokyo University is just one of a hoard of similar devices. It’s designed to deliver limited robotic companionship to older people, reminding them where they’ve left articles–which it keeps track of with wide-angle cameras and smart image-recognition software–and, most importantly, it can prompt users when it’s time for a particular medication.
These are fairly simple robots: It’s in devices like Honda’s ASIMO, and others like it, that real sophistication lies. Seeing the very humanoid ASIMO running, pushing carts around, collaborating in groups, conducting an orchestra, delivering coffee and meeting and greeting people is absolutely thrilling, albeit in slow-motion–check out the video below. It’s a million-dollar research prototype, sure, but it’s so many generations into development that if there were a concerted push commercialized robots like it could very well be out in the wild in a few years. Artificial walking-assistance robot legs, based on Asimo, may in fact be seen quite soon.
One argument against an increasingly robotic future is that the average person just isn’t ready to incorporate them into their lives.
But consider that Sony’s intelligent, learning electro-pet the AIBO was on sale nearly ten years ago; that millions of people have their homes vacuumed by fuzzy-logic controlled Roombas; that remote-controlled war robots are tackling dangerous IEDs in Iraq every day; and that smart, autopiloting robotic drones watch the skies over Afghanistan. These devices don’t look particularly human, but they are robots, and they are here already, aiding our complex modern lives.