The Automatic Future is Here

Robin Petré takes a look at the world of robots and how they are going to revolutionise our world.

By | Mon 27 Dec 2010

At first glance, the girl dancing and singing on YouTube could fool you into thinking she’s no different from the four other dancers on stage though after a bit of scrutiny, you notice her somewhat mechanical, though still impressively smooth, movements, Although in the end, when her short yellow dress flashes a pair of silver robot legs, the game is up! Her name is HRP-4C (catchy!), and she is a humanoid, more specifically an android, or in other words a machine made to copy human appearance. She is also the first humanoid ever to dance convincingly. The girl-bot was already singing and walking when the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan launched her in 2009. Last October, she added dancing to her virtual resume after performing on stage in an online video clip with her plump lips, fluttering eyelashes and overall human facial mimics, thanks to eight facial motors in addition to the thirty motors in her body.

HRP-4C is just a mere fragment of the new robot generation marching its ways into our homes, workplaces and social lives. We’re rapidly moving closer to an everyday existence full of robot assistance.

Too many robots in the kitchen…

Among the ever-increasing range of little mechanical helpers for private homes, you’ll find robots that can read out loud to you, do your laundry and flip your breakfast pancakes for you after helping you out of bed in the morning by lending you a supportive robotic hand.

Along with plenty of advanced cooking robots, the quite spectacular Bio Robot Fridge could be the future’s environmentally-friendly alternative to the conventional fridge. With the use of nano-robotic technology, this fridge has no door, nor any shelves. It is simply a wobbly wall of glistening green gel mass sitting in your kitchen. Each food item caught in the translucent gel keeps its own perfect temperature, and the robot fridge changes shape, growing wider or thinner, depending on the amount of food stored.

The robo-fridge was shown at the Electrolux Design Lab 2010 competition, where inventions estimated to become reality by year 2050 where exhibited. Even though some of us might be reluctant to let our hands sink into the slimy-looking substance to reach the bread, ham and apples stuck in there, the Russian designer Yuriy Dmitriev promises that his revolutionary gel is both non-sticky and odourless.

However, with the Kitchen Hideaway concept, one of the Bio Robot Fridge’s competitors, you wouldn’t need to access any fridge at all. This is a virtual reality concept allowing people to transfer their thoughts to robot chefs via a special helmet, making machines in another room cook whatever they can imagine.

Robots have also made their way into the restaurant business. In April 2010, the owner of the Hajime restaurant in Bangkok made the decision to employ four humanoid waiters with big glowing cartoon eyes and have them wear samurai costumes.

You’ll never be lonely with robot companions

There’s nothing like coming home to your dog that’s so happy to see you after a long day…Or how about coming home to your pet robot dinosaur? In 2010, Innvo Lab’s launched the ‘PLEO rb’, a more advanced version of the former PLEO robot pet dino. The tiny fellow with the pleading eyes and happily ever-wagging tail can see, hear and sense with artificial intelligence.

Whether you think the robot dinosaur is cute or not, you’ll find a more useful pet in the futuristic Bio Tank, or Robotic ‘FishWasher’, designed by Japanese Akifusa Nakazawa for the Electrolux Design Lab 2010 competition. This tank functions as a pet, a composter and a dishwasher in one. The little robot fish swimming around in the tank will eat the dirt off your dirty dishes and even turn what they consume into bio fuel. Furthermore, they will filter the water so that it never has to be changed.

The Bio Tank is still a long shot from leaving the lab, but Japan has already launched other useful robot companions such as RIBA, a care-giving robot that looks like a furless white teddybear and is strong enough to carry a human of up to 61 kilos. Another invention that has been around for a while is the wearable robotic suit that helps polio sufferers and disabled people to walk.

Cars that drive themselves

Fatal traffic accidents caused by drunk or exhausted drivers might soon be relegated to history with this autonomous vehicle created by American search engine-giant Google. It has taken years to develop it, but now the robot car has in fact become a reality. On test rides, the vehicles have already successfully gained 1,000 miles on Californian roads without human intervention according to New York Times (although a person was always present behind the wheel…just in case). Google’s car is equipped with a 360 perception through a peculiarly looking device attached to the roof. It could even change the way we use our roads for the better, allowing the mechanically reliable robot cars to drive much closer to each other than human-driven vehicles could safely do. Thanks to artificial intelligence, the robot car will never violate speed limits since it has them all memorised in its computer ‘brain’. Furthermore, the car can be set to fit your own driver personality. Choose whether you want it to drive cautiously, tending to hold back for other drivers, or more aggressively. However tempting, you will have to wait to get your own. Legal issues (for instance whom to blame in a traffic accident: the driver, or the driving software developer?) are currently hindering the launch of Google’s autonomous cars on the market.

Another interesting project is Swiss SMAVNET, short for Swarming Micro Air Vehicle Network. This fleet of winged robots will interactively communicate with each other, gliding on air in unison as one body. The Ecole Polytechnic Federale de Lausanne found useful inspiration for these robots in the study of army ants.

It seems machines can be made to copy just about any human or animal behaviour or function. As long as our imagination can take us there…science will follow.