We have all done it before, woken up at midnight desperate for a drink or bite to eat and dreaded the thought of having to get out of bed to grab one, hopeful that somehow, someway that drink (or sandwich) will grow some legs and make its own way over to you without you having to lift a finger…. But then you remember something excitedly, you have a robot! So you sit up, call him over and low and behold your own personal robot has filled up a glass of water, cut up a chicken sandwich, and brought it over to you. No fuss, no effort ….. Well, that’s the dream anyway…
Mankind has always had a fascination with robots, dating back to as early as 270BC when ancient Greek engineer Ctesibius made organs and water clocks with movable parts that could operate on their own. It wasn’t until the 19th century though that the robots of ‘today’, robots with AI (artificial intelligence) capabilities came to life. Robots that can interact with humans to an amazing degree; recognising voices, faces, express emotions through speech, walk without trouble on a variety of surfaces and perform household chores. It’s understood that there are approximately 250,000 robots in use throughout the world, with roughly 65 percent of those located in Japan. These robots help a number of industries and individuals worldwide, ranging from foundry and forging, metal fabrication, plastics, packaging and palletizing, oil and gas, mining, medical, space, army and much, much more.
The development of the first ‘Geminoid’ robot set the tone for a new generation of humanistic ‘AI’ robots. Robots with sensory recognition, learning capabilities and multi tasking aptitude. Robots designed to touch, feel, learn, teach and act just like a human being. The Geminoid robots have eerie similarities to actual human beings; mimicking breathing, blinking, flinching and reacting to touch.
I particularly wanted to highlight the new NAO robot, a concept 6 years in the making from French creators Aldebaran Robotics, designed to be a household robot or ‘personal’ robot. Apart from the ability to dance to a choreographed version of thriller by Michael Jackson, NAO has a number of qualities. The compact 2-foot robot views the world through high-resolution cameras, understanding both visual and audio input, taking photos of everything it sees. NAO also has the ability to not only communicate visually (through USB data download) but can speak in up to eight different languages.
NAO (pronounced NOW) uses algorithms to walk on a variety of different surfaces with even a ‘fall manager’ to protect the robot if it falls down. Algorithms are also used to learn how to handle different surfaces and with his 1.6 GHz Intel processor (located in its head) and a secondary CPU in its torso, NAO has two ‘brains’ to help it function with greater efficiency and effectiveness for its owners. With a whopping $15,999 (USD) price tag, NAO is not cheap. This isn’t surprising given the amount of hours spent developing the robot and technology placed within the little guy. Founder and chairman of Aldebaran Robitics, Bruno Maisonnier explained that the rationale behind the robots creation (apart from simple consumer companionship and a demonstration of the excellence of technology development) was to provide care for autistic children and those losing their autonomy, ‘contributing to humankind’s overall well-being’.
But haven’t we seen the end of this movie before? The one where the robots take advantage of those they’re supposed to be helping, gaining our trust, love and then try to take over the world, enslaving mankind? Terminator, I-robot, The Matrix… the list just goes on and on. The makers of NAO cannot guarantee consumers that the end to mankind isn’t imminent, they do though ensure consumers it will not be the result of robotics any time soon. All jokes aside, the idea of a world with AI robots that can think, speak, touch, feel and act for themselves is an exciting one, assisting the disabled, improving quality of life and overall helping a number of industry and people … where will it stop? I don’t think anyone knows, but if the rapid growth and evolution over the past decade is anything to go by then we have a lot to look forward to in the future. Currently, there are still limiting factors that are restricting the robots productivity and actions but for the moment, that dream of a robot companion bringing you a midnight snack isn’t as far away as you may of thought!5