This Week In Bots: Home Is Where You Hang Out With Your Robot

Robots are busy learning many new skills this week, like how to have delicate grips, make art, and chat in English. But perhaps the best news? They may make boring old housework a thing of the past.



Bot Vid: Lightsaber Dance

We wondered last week if robots could soon act in movies, and already here’s a trio of lightsaber-weilding bots that could give General Grievous from Star Wars a run for his money. We joke–it’s simply an amazingly watchable demonstration of industrial arm robots showing off their precision maneuvering skills, and enormous flexibility of movement (this is why they can often outperform people on the factory floor). But as for robo-actors, you never know…

Bot Vid: i-Sodog

It’s been six years now since Sony discontinued its amazing, if expensive, consumer level robot dog line…and now Takara Tomy has revealed its effort at replacing it. It’s called i-SODOG, and it shows you just how far robot development has come in just a handful of years. The bot has 15 custom servos inside, touch-sensitive skin, a learning AI system so owners can train it to do tricks, and it’s controllable via iPhone or Android phone apps. It’s also smart enough to understand 50 commands, which may even make it smarter than current-gen Apple Siri. It’s due for a Spring 2013 release in Japan for the equivalent of $400–so it’s not cheap, but at least it won’t leave robo gifts on the curb for unfortunate pedestrians.


Bot Vid: Touchy-Feely Bots

One of the big challenges in getting robots to do certain types of medical task or delicate production line work is that robot hands–okay, grippers–don’t have anything close to the degree of sensory precision that human fingers have–they simply can’t do some fine tasks in the same way. That’s something the Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering is working on, having developed a material called BioTac that can give a robot gripper such an acute sense of touch that it can identify the type of surface it’s brushed across. Much like your finger, the material has fine prints that make it vibrate subtley when it’s moved across a surface, which is how you distinguish say, cotton from hessian. The tech could have important implications for industrial robotics, and, of course, the field of artificial human limbs.


Bot Vid: Chatty iCub On UK News

British news this week featured incredible research using an iCub robot at the University of Hertfordshire. The science team there has programmed their iCub, named DeeChee, with most of the syllables used in spoken English–around 40,000 of them–and given it the programmed ability to learn. By asking volunteers to interact with DeeChee as if it were a child, the tea found its algorithms could learn the syllable constructions of some basic words in just a matter of minutes. Compared to the random babble when DeeChee selects syllables at random, this is an amazing demonstration of robot speech and learning that may influence future robots in our daily lives, and also help us understand how babies learn to speak. The team’s now teaching DeeChee what some of the words mean, for enabling an even deeper interaction.

Bot News

Samsung’s Galaxy Robot? Samsung may be all over the world’s advertising hoardings with its Galaxy S III smartphone right now (and seriously Samsung are you really saying, “Designed for humans”?) but it also has other projects in mind, such as its new patent filing for a humanoid walking robot. Its specific trick is to mimic human gait by constantly refining the scale of movements, making them much less jerky. And for extra creepiness, the bot may even coordinate a swelling chest to simulate breathing.


Mexican Jumping Bots. Mexican jumping beans are, of course, none of these things–they’re now bred for toys, they’re seed pods and they also roll and flip as the larva inside tries to move the bean out of hot sunlight. A team from the Georgia Institute of Technology has looked at the bean mechanics, and emulated them experimentally for robot locomotion. Incredibly, it seems like the beans may be a good way for small, cheap, energy efficient robots to move around. 

Roomba’s Wireless Gateway. Roomba vacuum cleaners may the home-dwelling robots you’re most familiar with, and this week iRobot released the latest and cleverest, the Roomba 790. As well as new looks, it also comes with a “wireless command center” that means owners can actually steer the machine to specific spots that require cleaning. A small, but significant, change. Next how about Roombas that bring us our morning coffee?

Bot Futures: Robots That Decorate, Then Tidy Your House Better Than You Do

A recurring theme here in TWiB is the idea that robots will soon help you do much more in your home than vacuum your floors or perhaps mop your kitchen. There are perhaps some good reasons for this–starting with the old notion that housework is a chore, and the newer one showing that consumers are now used to spending more money on items like Dyson equipment. Home-assistance robots may seem a long way off, but that doesn’t mean progress toward more robot involvement in your home is a dream.

Check out the skills of the Robofold and Artaic systems, because these devices may just help decorate your home of the near future. Robofold’s clever robot grips can take a 3D object designed in a standard desktop software system and bend and fold sheets of metal to conform to the design–replicating all sorts of items from sculptures to furniture to structural panels for displays. By doing so over and over, they can create composite objects that would just be too time-consuming to make by hand.

Meanwhile Artaic’s robots are a variation on the pick-and-place robots that find great use on electronic device production lines, only in this case they’re used for a more aesthetically-pleasing output: Manufacturing detailed mosaics. Essentially a simple task for the robot, and a very time-consuming and expensive one for human artisans, the device can rapidly assemble individual tiles that make up custom mosaic installations in a fraction of the time (and labor expense) that would otherwise be needed.


Surprising, aren’t they? But of course the home robot we would all like is a version of the Jetsons‘ maid Rosey, Kryten from Red Dwarf or perhaps a slightly less-sinister NS5 from I, Robot–a mechanoid that answers the door, cleans the floors, does dishes and tidies things away for us. It’ll be a while until a descendant of a droid like Asimo does this, but researchers at Cornell have been studying a key component of such a machine: Its ability to understand an object’s shape, and work out where to place it in a human environment. As the Automaton blog points out, by teaching the robot how objects may be placed courtesy of training them via a human simulation, the final learned algorithm can acutally work out how to tably place an object it hasn’t seen before because it can guess about where best to put them, and how best to stack them.

In this case the robot actually makes more sense than we do–for example, choosing to put a cereal box on its side because it’s more stable that way (which may even make it easier to pour the contents out. I just tried it in my shelves).


The outcome? A machine that can use its imagination to very smartly clean up and organize your kitchen or living room. Maybe that robot-delivered cup of tea isn’t such a far-off fantasy after all.

Related stories:

Your Tweets Are Why The Next Walter Cronkite Will Be A Robot

Burritobot, A 3-D Printer That Spits Out Burritos

[Image: Via 20th Century Fox film I, Robot]

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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!)