Telepresence robots are on the march. The latest to join the seemingly endless brigade is Suitable Technologies Beam "Remote Presence System." It's 62 inches tall, weighs 95 pounds, and sports a 17-inch monitor on the top, which means the face of its remote human operator may be more life-size than other devices. But unlike some of these, it's actually going on sale, shipping in November for $16,000 plus another $950 for a charger dock. If you can ignore the annoying characters in the clip below, it'll remind you how useful this tech may be in the office of the near future.
Recently, there's been news of Toyota's Human Support Robot, a device designed to help in the homes of people with reduced mobility. Now there's new video, which gives a sense of its impressive size and its dexterity. The HSR is not quite up to sci-fi levels of intelligence or object manipulation, but it's definitely a peek at a robot that could help manage the needs of our aging populations.
Although the Wall-Ye vineyard robot has been around for a while, he's hit the news this week and gained popularity due to his name and passing resemblance to that famous Pixar cartoon robot. He's an experimental machine designed to navigate autonomously by GPS around a vineyard—he's able to detect individual trees right now and perform mundane tasks like checking for disease and monitoring soil and temperature matters. In the future he'll be able to prune, too.
Foxconn accelerating robots. In the wake of riots and a series of worker strikes, Foxconn may be considering accelerating its plan to bring up to a million robots onto its high-tech production lines. The robots are planned to push human workers into more complex, rewarding jobs instead of repetitive mandraulic tasks.
Robot security tuna. If work by Boston Engineering Corp. goes well, biomimicing robot fish may soon be patrolling the inshore waters of the U.S. Shaped a little like a tuna, the fish is designed to be better at remaining stationary in ocean currents while its sensor array investigates ships' hulls for contraband or signs of terrorist threats.
Grishin invests. Double Robotics has planned a telepresence robot that's reminiscent of a Segway and should be one of the most affordable of its class when it goes on sale. Now Russian firm Grishin Robotics has injected $250,000 into the firm to help it achieve its goals. It's the first investment from Grishin, which was set up to give cash to exactly this sort of enterprise.
This week California's Governor Jerry Brown signed a document at Google's HQ that confirmed California as the third state in the U.S., after Nevada and Florida, that will allow driverless cars on its roads. Similar laws are planned for Hawaii and Oklahoma.
Governor Brown's move means driverless cars could be on the streets of California by 2015, although the law will require a licensed driver to be ready to drive the car if the robot fails. Brown has argued that the move will actually create jobs, because in the car-dominated U.S. it will allow more mobility-challenged people to get around and perhaps go to work (which seems at odds with the law's requirement to have a licensed driver in the car).
Sergey Brin, present at the signing, noted that Google's experimental cars have racked up some 300,000 miles on the roads so far—with the last 50,000 driven without any input from Google's driver-engineers to the controls. Two accidents with Google's cars have happened, but it's said the car's electronics weren't at fault. Accidents will continue to happen, it seems...but probably much less frequently. And the split-second decision-making powers of a robot car, combined with much faster reaction times in terms of control inputs, may even mean less-severe accidents.
Even Governor Brown noted that the experience of getting underway in a driverless car will make people nervous at first. And that taps into some rather subtle questions about the whole business of driverless vehicles. Will we, lawmakers, and police quickly come to trust them? Will we need raw safety stats compiled over a few years of ubiquitous driverless cars to convince us of the benefits of the technology?
But Jalopnik posed a few even more interesting ideas in response to this news. It's arguable that the first clutch of driverless cars may be very expensive, which means that if they become popular, then driving a car may be a skill that will only be a necessity for lower-income groups and professional drivers.
And then, assuming robot cars become the norm—possibly even the only kind of car permitted on the public roads—Jalopnik suggests that the entire car market may come to mirror, curiously, the way we treat travel by horse nowadays. In particular, when cars first arrived they were a game for the very rich, until they became cheap and popular...and horse-riding, which was common, became the pursuit of the rich. In this way, driving your own car yourself may be a rarity, and something that you do for fun, at high cost.
There are even a few social considerations to ponder, including: what will happen to driving for traveling's sake (such as commanding your robot car to just choose a random destination and to take its time)? And whether or not you'd feel safe loading your kids, alone, into a robot car to take them to school? Robot cars may even force us to reshape how we plan and build our roads, our public transport, and even change the idea of vehicle ownership.
[Image: Flickr user cblue98]