This Week In Bots: Don’t Take This The Wrong Way, But You’re A Terminator, Right?

In many ways the design of robots inches closer to human form every day, and also approaches sci-fi’s visions (although some say that’s a bad thing):




Come on, Boston Dynamic! Who are you trying to kid? You tell us PETMAN is the latest evolution of your human-form android that uses similar tech to your military BigDog, and that he’s a development from an earlier prototype that included just legs. You point out that by adding a torso, arms, realistic walking, running, crawling, push-ups, and staggering motions (to avoid a fall if pushed) as well as synthetic sweat glands, he’s perfectly designed to test out military clothing and hardware in lab situations. And then you go and give him a flashing red warning light for a head…

But we know what this is really all about. You’ll be back.

iPad Maker To Make Robots, Probably Without The “i”


Foxconn is best known as one of Apple’s biggest manufacturing partners for portable gadgets prefixed with an “i” (as well as an exaggerated suicide scandal), but the Chinese firm is poised to try something new: It’s going to design, test, and develop robots. The company has broken ground for a new R&D facility that’ll help it design machines that will eventually go onto its own productions lines, to replace fallible humans–Foxconn’s CEO had previously said a million bots will be on its lines inside three years.

The machines will elevate human workers “up the value chain, beyond basic manufacturing work” rather than directly replacing jobs, it’s said. And if Foxconn can bring the kind of low prices, high precision, and reliability it has to Apple’s classy products to its own robots line, we can see no reason the firm wouldn’t sell millions more of them to other factory firms around the world.

iRobot’s CEO Hates C3PO–How Could He?!

Many people dislike Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars movies, but few people seem to feel the same way about lovable bots C3PO and R2-D2…except for iRobot CEO Colin Angle. 

Okay, so he doesn’t technically hate the famous droid duo, but he does champion the kind of tiny wheeled droid that leads stormtroopers around in the films instead, because we could actually make that robot. Angle was speaking at the RoboBusiness conference this week and urged researchers and engineers to focus not on “that unachievable reality” of building a C3PO-like machine but instead on practical, useful, and achievable robots that could change our lives sooner rather than later. Talking to CNET, Angle said his vision is based on iRobot’s runaway success with the robotic vaccum cleaners and mopping droids it’s designed (“People don’t like to vaccum, and they hate to mop”) and he bemoaned spending research dollars trying to commercialize a “$250,000 home health care nurse,” because “does anyone care?”

Having said that, he does imagine our robot future is coming sooner rather than later, and noted that if in our homes “you get many beyond two robots, you are going to need robots to manage your robots so that will also be part of the future” (wasn’t R2-D2 essentially a repair and maintenance droid? We’re just asking…)


Toyota’s Robot Nurses Not Made For Sickbed Romances

This week Toyota revealed a suite of robots designed to assist people in medical situations–nursebots, if you will. But unlike many previous efforts, Toyota’s actually planning to put these four machines on sale in 2013. The devices range from a motorized brace that helps people with lower limb paralysis or nervous system injuries to walk, through a similar machine that helps train injured patients back into natural walking by themselves, to a game-play-enhanced balancing machine that helps maintain walking balance, to a transfer bot that can move a patient from bed to bed or to a chair or toilet–difficult maneuvers that carry a risk of injury to human nurses.

Robot Guide Dog Ain’t No K-9

Meet NSK’s Robo-Dog, a freshy unveiled quadruped robot that’s one day intended to replace flesh-and-blood guide dogs in assisting the blind. The company’s been working on it since 2005, but the latest iteration is the most advanced: It can poodle along at 3.8 km per hour, each of its legs is a sophisticated limb/wheeled hybrid so it can tackle very difficult terrain, and its head is equipped with a camera and sensor setup to help it navigate and react to any obstacles encountered.


With obvious advantages over real dogs, this could be the future in blind assistance devices…though we can’t help imagining what kind of amazing interactions would occur if NSK incorporated a Siri-powered iPhone in there for more intuitive human control. “Sit!” really would work.

Miim Walks Like A Girl, And That’s A Good Thing

The iRobot CEO’s words aside, there is plenty of research into bipedal robots that walk a little like we do–for a lot of reasons, starting with engendering trust with nearby humans and including the fact that nearly every physical thing in our homes, streets, and workplaces is already optimized in terms of design and function for an average human shape and maneuverability format. But one of the key difficulties in making such a machine is in getting it to actually walk like we do. Many bipedal bots balance on one leg and power their feet directly into the next stride, which is simpler but much more energy inefficient than the way us humans let gravity do a surprising amount of the work in walking for us. But now an HRP4-C droid dubbed Miim can pull this feat off–stretching its stance upwards with the right kind of hip and torso movement that the forward-swinging leg on each stride uses more pendulum motion, like our legs do.


Sure, she won’t be strolling down the catwalk anytime soon, throwing a hip coquettishly with a twlrl at the end, but small advances like this have big implications in efficiency, and thus the battery life of android robots.

A Robot’s Art, Not Pollock’s

Artist Mikami Seiko has an installation in Tokyo that’s a hint at how robots will penetrate society far beyond our car prodution lines or hospital bedsides: His artworks are part robot-powered. Check out the interactive multi-robot-armed piece which tracks viewer’s moves with cameras and blends it with other surveillance camera footage to produce a composite video artwork projected nearby.


It’s actually a new installation of an older art piece, and it’s part of a bigger robot art demonstration at the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo.

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


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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)