This Year In Bots

We wrote about a lot of machines in 2011. Here are the best of our future (dancing!) robot overlords.



Robo Profs

One of the most impressive, and perhaps most challenging developments in robotics (because it treads very close indeed to sensitivities about artificial people) is demonstrated by the Geminoid line–a group of highly advanced puppets that have been designed to replicate their human model right down to hair color, eye movements, and shrugs. The intention is to probe how humans react to such devices, and how emotional we can get in response–at least this is one of the tasks of Professor Henrick Scharfe, controller of the latest Geminoid device. We spoke to him about his research in March and perhaps the standout word was his description of meeting his robo-self: “Surreal.”

It may be surreal now, and a rare experience for a handful of humans. But how will we feel about the greater number of robots in our lives at the end of 2012? 

Don’t Take This The Wrong Way, But You’re a Terminator, Right?


Who doesn’t know the chilling line “I’ll be back,” muttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terrifyingly indestructible military android in Terminator? It’s a film set in a dystopian future where the military-industrial complex, with government assistance, accidentally created a world where the military machines took over. A lesson, perhaps…but one that Boston Dynamics is prepared to toy with. In early November we met Petman, the evolution of the robotics firm’s humanoid walking machine. Except that earlier Petman had just been some legs, ostensibly human-like to let the company test military clothing to destruction.

Now he’s oh so much more than legs. And that rotating warning beacon head is perhaps a tantalizing hint at things to come next year.

Sandwich-Buying Silicon

PR2 from Willow Garage has to go down as one of this year’s big robot success stories–an expensive but highly capable research robot now being used in many establishments across the world. In October we got a taste of how capable our future robotic assistants will be when a group of researchers programmed their PR2 to go and buy them a sandwich from Subway. But not as simply as that…they taught it about sandwiches, and they taught it some geolocations, and it inferred that the right course of action for a verbal request to buy some food was to go to the store. 


Butler-bots are, as we’ve suspected, likely to be one of the first ways a robot like this makes itself useful in your near-future home.

Toe-Spins Are Better Than Spinning Heads

HRP4C is another robot that’s dazzled us with its human-esque powers of movement, but while before she demonstrated incredibly realistic dance moves, in 2011 she proved that her fine motor skills and ability to maintain balance have evolved to a level that’s even more human: She can now toe-spin. 


It may sound like nothing much at all, but it does show off how sophisticated android movements can now be (and it’s defter even than the famous Asimo can pull off)…and it shows how efficiency and speed can be maintained by androids to conserve battery and maneuver in human-like spaces. Quiet unlike Petman’s disquieting yomp, it’s also a delicate and very lifelike move that’ll help boost trust in such robots too.

The Artistic Bot With An Artist’s Temperament

What’s the point of designing a robotic painter that merely segues through the same moves over and over again, coating car after car on a production line with an unimaginative–but perfect–layer of paint? Well, there are lots of course. But it’s hardly art. And that’s where a bot from Benjamin Grosser at the University of Illinois comes in, with a shaky robot hand that’s sensitive to sound. Left to its own devices, it paints calmly away…but when you shout or sing to it the output is far more, shall we say passionate?


It’s smart enough to work with the audio as data–rather than jerkily reacting to loud sounds–so it really could be said to have an artistic temperament. Not good for cars, but maybe good for your living room wall. What will the value of art created ilke this be in 2012…2013? 2100?

Keeping On Keepon

If anyone tells you the long-fabled robotic future is far off, then show them this article. On the one hand it’s a toy, for a couple handfulls of dollars…one that’ll doubtless make you laugh and please you nonstop for weeks when you buy it, then sit on your desk ready to prompt an occasional smirk for long after. On the other hand, it’s a consumer-level evolution of a genuine research robot that was once sold for $20,000 per unit–so jam-packed with cleverness was it.

It is Keepon. He’s been one of this year’s holiday season hot sellers. Who knows what his equivalent will be in the coming years…but you can bet they’ll be even more intelligent than never pulling off the same cute dance moves twice.


Dog-gone Scary

This is Boston Dynamics again, purveyor of such impressively science-fiction-emulating robots that we had to mention them twice. The company’s BigDog prototype has been quietly in the news for a few years, because it’s so clever at navigating tricky terrain in a similar way to a real dog’s gait, that the U.S. military wants it to assist troops in the field in the near future. Which is why in 2011 BD revealed AlphaDog, an evolution of the original design that’s both scarily larger, quieter, and which will ultimately be able to carry more gear for the soldiers further and faster.

Warbots, definitely a theme for the next year or so.

I, Asimo


Asimo’s long been the poster child of the coming robot revolution, not least because he’s, well, child-sized. It’s also because he’s the pinnacle of decades of continuous research, and he’s about as close to being a genuine consumer product as possible–more so than many peers. This year we saw him learn new tricks, we understood why he hasn’t got a face, and we saw him take the next step in his evolution into another refined edition–with more movement skills, better battery life, and more intelligence.

Yes, we want one just like it. And soon will you, too. Perhaps we’ll get them next year.

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


About the author

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!)