This Week In Bots: Roboplayers, Robodancers, Robowarriors, And The Delicate Ethics Of Robosex

Would you love your Roomba more if it had rat-like whiskers? How about if it saved people’s lives in post-disaster situations? Yeah, us too.

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Teaching robots to play sports is a clever way to advance the science of robotic movements, environment sensing, and artificial intellgence all in one swoop. That’s because a game or sport has a predetermined set of rules so it’s simpler than the “real” world. Enter UPenn’s Design of Mechatronics Students with their robotic hockey players

See how instructive programming those little beasts must’ve been? They’re not allowed to be controlled or communicated with once they’re in the ring, so there’s a pretty good amount of AI in them, as well as good situational awareness sensing. They’re not as massive or powerful as the droids seen on the big screen in Reel Steel, but they are way cuter. And, as Automaton blog points out, in the dark the lighting on the machines makes for some surprisingly good art in long-exposure photos.



Search and rescue robots are a regular feature here at TWIB headquarters, probably because there’s considerable momentum behind the R&D–the opportunity to save lives with robotic tech that can access dangerous areas in post-disaster scenarios is just so exciting. Lots of research is needed to develop sensitive, smart, and perhaps unusual robots to perform the various tasks demanded of a SAR robot, which is why the work of University of Sheffield is so interesting. Working with exsiting Roomba robot carcasses, the British engineers are again visiting the idea of using rat-like whiskers as sensors for search and rescue purposes–they work in the dark, they don’t damage any victims they brush over, and they’re a bit sacrificial in case the robot blunders into a truly risky environment. But the Sheffield team is also adding another animalistic trait to their robots: the design of monkey brains.

The idea isn’t to strap a nicely chilled monkey brain into a Roomba, but rather to build a software model of how monkey brain neurons let monkeys make a decision, and use that to drive the robot’s AI. It’s known that individual monkey neurons speed up the rate at which they fire when faced with a decision about which way to move–driven by visual cues. The Sheffield team thus followed some earlier research into monkey neurons and reprogrammed their Roomba. The upshot was a whisker-powered sensor that could correctly identify the type of flooring it was moving over, in an all but flawless way.

This kind of sensitivity could be vital for a SAR robot as it would need to make sure it wasn’t maneuvering onto dangerous or slippery terrain in search of survivors, and it’s also likely got medical, military, and other uses too.


Watch Star Wars, Red Dwarf or countless other movies or TV shows and you’ll see small service droids beetling around the corridors under their own power, presumably engaged in vitally important missions. If you popped into Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Mass., over the last year you may have been stunned to see something pretty similar. CNN Money is reporting on the experiment the hospital’s been running with a Xenex droid for a year, and how it’s been incredibly effective. Pleasingly the machine even has a kind of R2-D2 vibe. 

The droid is empowered to seek and destroy, you see. Not alien invaders, but germy invaders. As it patrols the corridors and rooms, it maneuvers around to flash bright UV light into as many corners and surfaces as it can reach–with the light actively killing off any bugs that are hanging around there. The hospital thinks it’s likely saved five lives and prevented two colostomies from happening–since it’s suppressed the “winter vomiting disease” C. diff infection rate by about 70%.


Expect more droids like this sooner rather than later.


What better way to show off Chinese robotic prowess than to welcome in the Chinese Year of the Dragon with a celebratory dancing robot spot! Fourteen droids shook their lovely robo-lumps to a remix of a traditional Russian song on the hugely popular Big-Show on television.

No uncanny valley crossing here, just plain old robot excitement.



More and more we see headlines about “drone airstrikes” in places like Afghanistan, not without controversy, of course. And now the robot army is getting a serious boost: The Pentagon’s new budget sees the slashing of some 80,000 soldiers and 20,000 marines…but the boosting of Army and Navy drone forces by quite considerable sizes. More money is also being shuffled into the Air Force’s future long-range bomber plan–a system that won’t necessarily have a pilot aboard at all times.

Fewer pensions, fewer losses and costs due to injury and death, potentially more precise and stealthier mission delivery…these are but a few of the reasons why these decisions are being made. Check out a fuller story on the moves at Wired

Robosex (SFW)

So we know that robots are already sliding deeper into our everyday lives. And this’ll only happen more so as the years pass. Which is why Yale Daily News (“The Oldest College Daily”!) has an interesting article today, predicting a near-ish future where… well, where human’s sexual tastes have swelled to include human-machine interfacing of a much more intimate nature. If your tastes and work environment permit, it’s a fascinating and slightly explicit read. Light-hearted as the matter seems, this technology is actually already here in a way (for an example, here’s another NSFW link about one man’s quest for robot love), and when it becomes more common and sophisticated then all sorts of moral and legal issues are bound to pop up. 

Chat about this article with Kit Eaton on Twitter (he’s not a robot) 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!)