Meet the Future: 10 Robots on the Rise
Researchers Developing Machines for Medicine, Military, Education and More
By KI MAE HEUSSNER
Feb. 16, 2011
Turn on your television this week and you can watch man face off against machine in a much-hyped three-day "Jeopardy!" challenge.
As impressive as it to watch IBM's super computer Watson hold its own against the game's all-time greats, that's just one high-profile example of ongoing efforts in the science community to advance the field of smart machines.
The robots of our sci-fi fantasies aren't here yet, but researchers are getting close.
Artificial intelligence and robotics researchers around the world are developing machines with applications for medicine, education, space exploration, the military and even sex.
Take a look at 10 of the most promising robots below.
Robo Therapy Could Help Stroke PatientsWelcome to robo rehab.
New research shows that robots could help stroke survivors improve arm and shoulder function by moving a patient's paralyzed arm in various pre-programmed directions. Earlier this month, researchers from Japan's Kitasato University East Hospital in Kanagwa presented their findings at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference, according to the American Heart Association. In the study, 40 patients who had recently suffered a stroke received standard therapy daily from an occupational therapist. Thirty-two patients also underwent robotic therapy, while the other participants spent the same amount of time on a self-training program. The patients receiving robotic care improved more than the patients in the self-training program, the study found.
Robot Priest Weds CoupleLast May in Japan, one couple's wedding got the high-tech treatment when a robot priest presided over the ceremony. The I-Fairy robot, manufactured by Kokoro Co., became the first robot to lead a wedding ceremony.
The robot's voice and speech can be controlled by connecting it to a PC and, in addition to speaking, the I-Fairy can make gestures and dance, the company says.
But if you want to feature it at your next event, it will cost you: the I-Fairy's price tag is about $75,180.
The Education of Simon
Remember Rosie, the sweet robotic housekeeper, from the cartoon series "The Jetsons"?
She won't be bringing you breakfast yet, but researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology aren't too far away from a robot who could handle itself in a home.
In Georgia Tech's Socially Intelligent Machines Lab, researchers have developed "Simon" -- a machine with the very human ability to learn.
On her blog, Andrea Thomaz, one of the lab's lead researchers, wrote that she is working on "social learning machines," not so unlike Star Wars' R2D2 or CP30 (and, of course, Rosie).
"These machines are general purpose, they co-exist with people in a human culture and successfully interact in human environments," she wrote. "And importantly, they have the ability to learn about their environment and new challenges that arise by interacting with the people around them."
If you want to follow Simon's progress, you can check him out on his own blog. In addition to detailing his latest activities, he (not so humbly) describes himself.
In answering the question "What do I look like?" he writes: "Exceptionally cute, of course!"
Could a Robot Give Your Kids Detention?
Apples certainly won't work on this kind of teacher.
Researchers in Japan are working on a robot that could lead a classroom of children. "Saya," who was tested in a classroom of fifth and sixth graders in a real Tokyo classroom last year, can call roll, smile and scold, according to the Associated Press. Her specialty is the ability to express six emotions -- surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness and sadness -- thanks to rubber skin manipulated by motors and wiring around the eyes and mouth.
Robot Waiters Deliver Food in China
Flirting with this waiter won't get you a round of drinks on the house.
In the Dalu Robot restaurant in China's Shandong province, tray-toting robots deliver food while circling the room on a conveyor belt-type system, the AP reported in December.
Each robot includes a motion sensor so that they stop as customers reach for plates of food.
More than a dozen of the robots, which cost about $6,000 each, act as receptionists, entertainers, servers and greeters. The restaurant's owner, Zhang Yongpei, told the AP that he hopes to boost his robot count to 30 and introduce robots that can serve customers at their tables and walk up and down the stairs.
Computerized Help Cleans Your Home
These guys don't have flashing eyes, they can't talk to you and won't serve you food, but they're already a welcome addition in homes around the world.
Since introducing the Roomba cleaning robot in 2002, iRobot has sold more than 5 million units, the company said.
And buoyed by the success of the original Roomba, iRobot has also rolled out a whole series of practical robots, including the Scooba floor-washing robot and the Verro pool-cleaning robot.
The robots, which cost in the $300-$600 range, automatically move around and clean up a designated space once turned on.
Mobile Robots Help Keep Soldiers Safe
iRobot isn't just developing robots for the home.
The company has partnered with Boeing to develop small tactical mobile robots that can help keep soldiers and public safety professionals safe.
The SUGVs are small, unmanned ground vehicles with cameras, audio equipment and other sensors that can be remote-controlled to find IED (improvised explosive devices) in a war zone or other threats in a public safety situation.
The rugged robots can climb stairs and roll into areas that are inaccessible or too dangerous for people.
A Giant Step for Robokind
When the Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off for the International Space Station later this month, the first space-bound humanoid robot will go along for the ride.
Robonaut 2 (or R2 as it's known to some) was built by NASA and General Motors at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA started the Robonaut project in 1996 and unveiled the first version in 2000. But Robonaut 2 will be the first to make it into space.
R2 could be used for simple, repetitive or dangerous tasks, NASA says on its site. For example, without changing the current design, the robot could change out an air filter. But the 300-pound machine could also work alongside humans in a GM plant on earth.
In the future, the robot could help humans explore the final frontier by scouting out other planets, such as Mars, or asteroids.
Some robots are ready for even the most intimate tasks.
In January 2010, Douglas Hines, an electrical engineer and computer scientist who formerly worked on artificial intelligence at AT&T Bell Laboratories, unveiled his latest creation: Roxxxy, a "sex robot" from the company Truecompanion.com.
"It's really a labor of love," Hines told ABCNews.com at the time, adding that it cost between $500,000 and $1 million and took about two-and-a-half years to create.
Customers interested in a Roxxxy companion can ask the company to customize the robot for their personal preferences. To create a robot that looks and acts like an ideal mate, customers fill out a questionnaire to give engineers clues about the robot's personality.
Though the prototype robot is modeled after a Caucasian fine arts student and is 5 feet 7 inches tall and 120 pounds, customers can choose hair color, eye color and other features, Hines said.
Honda's Humanoid Robot Can Run, Recognize Faces
Someday, this robot might help you around the house or take care of an older family member.
Honda's Asimo, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, was first developed as a helper in 1986 and has developed by leaps and bounds since. According to the company, it's the "World's Most Advanced Humanoid Robot."
Now the 4-foot robot can run at a speed of almost 4 mph, follow simple voice commands and recognize faces with camera eyes.