Since the word was first introduced in Karel Capek's 1920 play Rossum's Universal Robots, science fiction has offered conflicted, often apprehensive visions of our automated counterparts. C-3PO charmed us as a bumbling valet in the Star Wars films, even as The Terminator franchise warned of "The Rise of the Machines."
In reality, robots serve us every day as problem-solvers, force-multipliers, first-responders, and even companions. We find them in places as varied as their tasks--from the bottom of the ocean to interplanetary space, from the operating table to the family living room. Advances in nanomechanics and artificial intelligence now allow robots to perform important functions well beyond our own capabilities, including saving lives in the most inhospitable environments and helping us to understand our own human consciousness.
Here are five cool robots on the cutting edge of technology:
Produced by the same company that developed the robotic internet sensations WildCat and Spot, Boston Dynamics' Atlas is a high-mobility humanoid robot developed for search-and-rescue and other disaster response missions. Its programming and hardware are the result of a public contest following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. One of the world's most advanced mobile robots, it can enter, drive, and exit a car; manipulate doorknobs and handles; dig and walk through rubble; climb ladders; affix fire hoses and turn valves; and operate power tools. Atlas uses laser surveying technology (LIDAR) to assess terrain and maneuver appropriately, and can lift and carry heavy objects over long distances.
Developed in Japan by Aldebaran Robotics, Pepper is a four-foot-tall companion robot whose sole purpose is to make people happy. Pepper uses facial and vocal recognition to ascertain human moods, and responds accordingly. Marketed as an “emotion engine,” Pepper doesn't deign to do household chores, but is meant to please its humans with banter, jokes, and quick answers to anything you might otherwise enter into a search engine. There are 7,000 Peppers in homes across Japan, and the robot is currently being reprogrammed to understand American cultural cues. Presumably that means Pepper will angrily debate the designated hitter rule and The Sporanos series finale. Your new dual-core, 1.6 gigahertz family member is available for under $2,000.
Developed to help decision-makers better understand seafloor and surface environments, BP is developing and testing how it can use fleets of Marine Autonomous Systems (MAS) to assess the environmental impact of operations, rapidly respond to emergencies, and obviate the risk posed to human divers.
The robots are categorized as either Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs) or Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), and are pre-programmed with mission parameters in order to get to work in a fraction of the time of their tethered or remote-controlled predecessors. The maritime robots are capable of sending a tremendous amount of data to controllers, including crystal-clear images of the murkiest sea waters. IAUVs can record multiple images of a single section of seafloor in order to create a layered, three-dimensional composite showing environmental changes over time.
Back on the surface, agile ASVs are fitted with sensitive monitoring equipment to detect hydrocarbons and relay precise information such as location, depth, movement, concentration, and temperature. The combined capabilities of the MAS fleet helps BP to safeguard the maritime environment and respond to crises swiftly and effectively, while keeping divers out of harm's way.
The Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) was developed by the U.S. Navy to combat fires on maritime vessels. Reminiscent of the Terminator model T-800 endoskeleton sans Arnold's chiseled exterior, the form is modeled after humans in order to open doors, step over debris that would impede a tracked or wheeled robot, and don and hold firefighting gear. Using an infrared camera, the futuristic first-responder can see through thick smoke and relay clear imagery to its human controllers. With the ability to lob fire-retardant grenades that suppress combustion and flames at a molecular level, SAFFiR could easily frustrate the explosive efforts of a T-800.
Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans, to its friends) is not a robot, but a one-millimeter worm. Its 302 neurons are just about 86 million fewer than the 86 million possessed by the average human.. Needless to say, C. elegans has significantly less processing power than the other robots listed here. What makes this tiny moron special is being the first animal to have its entire nervous system simulated in robot form. OpenWorm, a loose consortium of software developers and biologists, has mapped the roughly 7,500 synaptic connections among the worm's neurons, and replicated them in a wheeled robot constructed of Legos. By all accounts the robot exhibits worm-like behavior: it moves toward food and away from danger. That may not sound terribly impressive, but consider that the robot's movements are not programmed- they are intelligent, spontaneous interactions with its environment. The goal of the project is the development of robots that can perform ambiguous tasks requiring true cognition, the holy grail of AI. Success of the C. elegans model may be the first small step toward uploading a human brain, resulting in a much larger robot that moves toward food and away from danger.
Photo Credits: Atlas: By DARPA (Website / image) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Pepper: © Xavier Caré / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons, MAS: UK National Oceanography Centre, Saffir: Office of Naval Research, C Elegans: By Courtesy: National Human Genome Research Institute (From http://www.genome.gov/10000570) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Cover: DLR: Creative Commons Attribution license