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March 29, 2005 > Robots in the 21st Century

Robots in the 21st Century

by Tony C. Yang

It's been a while since you went to the mall. Twenty years, in fact. Heading for the entrance, a guide robot opens the door for you, and asks, "How are you today? May I help you?" You give a quick "No, thank you," and proceed to shop. As you walk around, you notice a security robot keeping watch in the jewelry store, a sanitation robot in the food court emptying the trash and a play robot wheeling around in the children's playpen. Strange.

"Excuse me," someone or something says to you.

Behind you, a vacuum robot has carefully avoided running into you, and wheels off doing its job.

This scenario may not be too far from reality, in light of the many advances in robotics over the past decade. According to the International Federation of Robotics, the number of industrial robots worldwide will increase to an estimated 875,000 by the end of 2006.

This past holiday season, the gift of choice to many youngsters was the "RoboSapien," a walking, talking robot, and even adults couldn't resist the convenience of "Roomba" a robotic cleaning appliance or Sony's AIBO, a robotic dog. What was once a childhood fantasy is now growing reality.

From Berkeley to Pennsylvania, and even in Texas, American researchers are continuously experimenting with ways to make robots "more human." With their efforts showing great promise, the defense, medical and transportation industries seem to be the next sectors that will benefit from robots.

Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of UC Berkeley's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, is confident in the progress of robotics research, but is not sure about a timeline. "With regards to Artificial Intelligence (AI), computer scientists have made great strides," he said. "The question is how close is the future?"

For Dr. Kazerooni, the future is now- and in progress. He is one of the primary scientists behind the BLEEX, or the Berkeley Exoskeleton, a robotic apparatus attached to a person's lower body that has the potential of giving feeble humans a "leg up" on heavy lifting.

"[BLEEX] is a perfect example of a collaboration of human and a robot together," he said. "You can have a 70-pound pack and you don't feel anything at all." It is this type of human-machine interaction, he stressed, that has interested him and many of his fellow robo-scientists, and informed his research. "I was always interested in designing devices that help people- and work with people."

The Pentagon predicts that such types of robots will be a big factor in the 21st century military. According to the Pentagon, "They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders." Military planners say robot soldiers will think, see and react increasingly like humans. How fast this will happen is not as certain.

What is certain is that robots are considered secondary to humans, and therefore can be sent out to do the most dangerous jobs. By April, an armed version of a bomb-disposal robot will be deployed in Baghdad, capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute. But more than defusing explosives, robots may be able to help heal humans.

Anna Liao, a graduate of UC Berkeley, is currently at the renowned robotics department of Carnegie Mellon University, working on her Ph.D. in Microelectrical Technology. She is just one of the many researchers and scientists working on robots and trying to "humanize" them. You could almost say it is "in her bones."

After a summer research program working with human-machine interactions, Liao grew interested in medical instrumentation and sensors. She's involved with research groups looking into bone sensors- essentially mini-robots that are implanted into a patient's bones- that, after surgery, "measure the stress of bone over time." This can be extremely useful to doctors and physical therapists in treating sports injuries and diseases such as osteoporosis.

"I've attended robotics conferences, and people are really into robots," she said, mentioning her colleague's projects such as soda-fetching robots and even a RoboReceptionist. Researchers are even consulting drama students on improving aspects of robot personality, she added. Not only will a robot get a drink for you, it may even add ice cubes.

As for her, Liao is keen on biochemical sensors, because robots need human senses, too. "I'm interested in medical instrumentation," she said; "Things [such as] implants and devices that monitor someone's health conditions."

Robert Capps in Wired Magazine of July is optimistic about the promise of robots. "The science behind it is quite real. With each advance in computing speed, battery capacity, camera and motor miniaturization, and software capability, the world grows closer to the ultimate goal of robotics," he said; "A walking, talking, feeling android worthy of our cinematic inspirations."

Healthy competition can also engender healthy innovation.

Ben Hsu, an Electrical Engineering major at the University of Texas at Austin, is not so sure that the United States is number one in robotics. "Let's look at Japan: it has a great deal more government attention and a lot more funding towards humanoid robotic research," he said, citing Toyota's Partner robots and Honda's ASIMO robot.

In the United States, or Texas, at least, much of the focus is geared towards applied robotics rather than pure research.

Hsu says he and his colleagues are working on detection-based AI, which "uses the navigational tools provided to go different places."

It is much more advanced than the "Roomba," the robotic vacuum that can only follow set paths and offer predetermined responses to obstacles. "The new AI can adapt," Hsu said. "The current ones depend too much on GPS and programming." With a margin of error of up to several meters, the need for real-time sensors to adapt to changing conditions becomes increasingly evident, which explains the importance of machine learning, a vision of computer scientists.

To Hsu, robots are more than just complex chunks of wire and metal. "It is just intriguing," he said, "Making devices that can simplify work."

One of these devices that may have larger implications is the robotic, or intelligent wheelchair. This automated wheelchair can load maps and building schematics, and is able to carry its occupant to new places without the requisite manual operation. This new transportation device will benefit disabled people, such as British physicist Stephen Hawking, who are unable to operate the wheelchair by themselves.

Right now, the ones in control are the researchers. But the ultimate arbiter of the future of robots is the consumer. As seen in Will Smith's recent movie, "I, Robot," it only takes one defective robot to render the whole into a pile of junk.

Dr. Kazerooni briefly discussed household consumer robots like the "Roomba," saying they were largely autonomous, and incapable of machine learning. However, it is clear that robots can play a major role in many human-friendly applications. From intelligent wheelchairs to exoskeletons, "Robots do the hard part, and humans do the controlling," said Dr. Kazerooni. But beyond their pre-programmed routines, he added, "They don't do very much." That is exactly what researchers around the world are seeking to change.

Starting March 25, the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan, will feature a never-before-seen robot extravaganza, where visitors can see the newest mechanical marvels in action and being repaired in the workshop. Visitors can even test out various types of robots, and watch "The Dream, Joy and Inspiration of Mobility in the 21st Century," a twenty-minute song and dance troupe comprised of- you guessed it- robotic musicians and swingers.

Sober-minded robots will be on hand as well, to demonstrate their efficiency in sanitation, security, guide, transportation, defense and even childcare. Some of the guide robots speak four languages. It is estimated that 15 million visitors will see the robots by the end of the year. Many of the robots showcased in the Expo will be modified for the market someday, and may end up a becoming a part of our techno-centric lives.

Perhaps someday, due to scientists' efforts across the country and abroad, robots will jump out from the pages of science fiction and into our malls and homes, and we will be able to see them day in and day out. For now, there's always Pixar's "Robots."

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