Robots are pretty awesome. Most people have an idea of robots formed by popular culture representations, but the direction the actual robotics world is traveling has less flash and more pragmatism. Science fiction has long focused on philosophical questions of the essence of humanity and the moral qualms involved in creating an automaton that can ‘feel.’ However, robotic technology, as of 2014, is not on the cusp of creating the perfect android. Alas, we do not have artificial intelligences (AI) capable of bestowing emotions, personality, or morality unto beautiful, very human-like machines in the fashion of Hollywood productions.
How close are we today? In reality life-like robotic behaviors are restricted by some key factors. Size-to-power ratios keep realistic, humanoid bots like AIST’s Miim, Kokoro Company Ltd.’s Actroid, and University of Pisa’s FACE either being completely mobile with pretty limited range of motion, or with advanced upper bodies and stationary power packs for legs. Non-realistic humanoid bots are another story. Boston Dynamic’s Atlas, a 6’2” 330lb android, looks mechanical and to be honest somewhat terrifying. Atlas was presented at DARPA, the US agency responsible for the Department of Defense’s technological innovation, and is intended to advance US military and civilian emergency response options. This robot is capable of moving quickly over rough and uneven terrain, can climb ladders, turn on a car, and carry survivors, but don’t assume this means it is self-determining. The complexity involved in creating software algorithms capable of dealing with the myriad unpredictable real life scenarios is a huge limiter, so beyond Roomba, expect to have to specifically tell your robots where to go and what to do for a while yet. So what do we have that rivals the imagination of science fiction? Machines that assist in human healthcare.
Robots can assist humans in a variety of healthcare applications, and they show high potential to permeate the fields of physical therapy and invalid care in the near future. Social bots have been made for children with autism to help them engage their surroundings, play games, and communicate with other people more effectively. Stroke victims are assisted in their physical therapy by an MIT and USC developed robot that encourages and monitors patient progress depending upon individual patient response. Singing automatons (including Actroids) play games with elderly Alzheimer patients that help them retain memory and improve their moods. “Smart homes” are being developed to perform tasks from maintaining optimal energy efficiency within user-preferences, to monitoring the safety and well-being of inhabitants. And—wait for it—a new bionic prosthetic called LifeHand 2 has been invented that actually sends sensory input via severed nerve endings to the wearer. A Danish man missing an arm was surgically connected to the Life Hand 2 and was able to identify objects he touched with the bionic hand while blindfolded. So, even if we are a long way off from I, Robot, it looks like Full Metal Alchemist is happening now. Personally, I’m extremely excited.
Learn more about weird science such as current advances in robot technology from Lin, Abney, & Bekey’s 2012 Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics and about bionic prosthetic breakthroughs in Science magazine at http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/6/222/222ra19.