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Robots, Are We Ready for You?

Robots are being created that can think, act, and relate to humans. Are we ready?

Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University built his own mechanical twin to see how humans react to extraordinarily lifelike machines.


Nick Mayer, of the LifeNaut project in Vermont, sits down for a chat with the robotic head Bina48. Hanson Robotics created the talkative humanoid in the image of Bina Rothblatt, the co-founder of LifeNaut, which is exploring robot-human fusion as a technological path to immortality.

At Carnegie Mellon University the robot Actroid-DER took a crash course in becoming more human.

Domestic robots keep busy at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology. One makes toast, while the appropriately attired bot at right waits to deliver the toast to a human. At left, a third robot tests technology for navigating through a house, controlled by the movements of the researcher in the baseball cap.


With no human coach at the controls, Virginia Tech’s robot soccer team dribbled, passed, and scored its way into the 2010 RoboCup “kid-size” semifinal in Singapore. The tournament founders’ goal is a robot team that will defeat the human World Cup champs by 2050.


A partially assembled Joey Chaos is one of roboticist David Hanson’s “talking heads”—head-and-shoulders robots designed to push the boundaries of realism with both their physical traits and cognitive abilities. Hanson developed a biologically inspired skin material, “frubber,” that makes his robot heads appear uncannily lifelike. Cutting-edge speech programs give his creations the ability to converse.


Virtual body parts surround Amanda Hanson in her suburban Dallas garage, where her husband, roboticist David Hanson, creates verbal, hyperrealistic androids, including a likeness of Amanda herself. On the table, body parts of a singing robot, from a collaboration with musician David Byrne, surround the head of an android version of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.


Creepy yet cute, Osaka University’s four-foot-tall Child-robot with Biomimetic Body is designed to learn like a child by watching and interacting with humans.


Childhood development is increasingly the model for robotic intelligence, bypassing the need to laboriously program a robot for every likely situation.


Linked through a computer, the humanoid BARTHOC and a pair of robotic hands team up to learn from humans at Germany’s Bielefeld University. The hands are being trained how to grasp different fruits, while BARTHOC provides a face for the researcher to address—a key part of human communication.


Putting one foot in front of the other is so simple a child can do it—yet bipedal locomotion is extremely difficult to replicate in machines. In an effort to enable robots to walk more efficiently, engineers at Darmstadt University of Technology and Friedrich Schiller University Jena, both in Germany, have endowed BioBiped1 with the mechanical equivalents of bones, joints, muscles, and tendons.


The Shimada family gathers around Paro, a cuddly, furry seal designed by Japanese roboticists to engage patients suffering from dementia—or in the Shimadas’ case, to serve as a virtual pet. Its sensors allow it to discern the presence of people and respond to touch by wiggling its body and emitting seal-like cries. Its electronic brain has a rudimentary ability to learn words taught by its users and respond with sounds and movements. Some critics of social robots worry that the time spent with such devices could supplant interactions with real people, further distancing impaired people from society.


PR2 delivers mail at Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley firm that developed it as an easily customized research robot. Also tested as an eldercare aide, a cook, and a laundry folder, the versatile machine typifies a generation of robots set to emerge from controlled environments and enter the human world.



Ready to fire bullets and hurl grenades, a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, operated by a soldier behind cover, rolls into action in a training setup at Fort Benning, Georgia. Future military robots endowed with ethical programs might be able to decide on their own when, and at whom, to shoot.


The Huggable robot, from MIT’s Personal Robotics Group, is usually covered with the fuzzy head and pelt sitting behind it. With more than 1,500 sensors throughout its body, the robot is capable of extensive interactions with people. It’s being tested as a “telepresence” robot: a physically responsive telecommunication device that could, for instance, mirror movements of a person on the other end of the line. It’s also being studied as a possible therapy tool for autistic children, some of whom shrink from contact with people but enjoy interacting with robots.



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