In Hindsight

More Than Meets the Eye

There is a distinct possibility that, within our lifetimes, robots will be everywhere—taking out the trash, day-tripping to Mars, winning the Nobel prize. During the past month, news about robots was frequently amazing and sometimes terrifying.

On March 17, a video of the spooky quadruped military robot BigDog, designed by Boston Dynamics, was posted on YouTube to show us what America’s Department of Defense has been doing with its $550 billion budget. Within two weeks, the BigDog clip had been viewed more than 3.8 million times.

BigDog sounds like a swarm of killer bees and is more terrifying than the headless horse it closely resembles, if only because of its capability: “BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, and carries a 340 lb. load.” Perhaps you’ve been too busy picking a color for your XB-500, but BigDog wasn’t the only robot news in April.

If robots are to become a part of our daily lives, right off the bat we’ll need them to take over all our tedious and unpleasant tasks. It is predicted that the IWARD (Intelligent Robot Swarm for Attendance, Recognition, Cleaning, and Delivery), a robot prototype unveiled on April 22 by researchers at Warwick University, will be working alongside hospital nursing staff by 2020. According to a researcher: “Nursing staff will be able to alert one of these robots via a handheld device, like a BlackBerry, and tap in instructions to collect a certain drug or to go to a particular ward to clean up a spillage.”

In the near future, robots may help with healthcare both at home and in the hospital. On April 16, LiveScience reported that the uBOT-5 could be a solution to the growing demand for affordable home healthcare. The robot, equipped with an LCD, is capable of “picking up small objects, using a stethoscope, and even dialing 9-1-1. Sensors near its video-screen head can also figure out if someone has fallen.”

For those of us who are neither elderly nor infirm—but who’d still like a little battery-operated helper around the house—two “tele-presence” robots that let owners see what’s going on at home while they’re away are expected to become widely available and affordable in the next year. One of them, the Rovio, looks like a small dog and can connect to your home’s wireless internet in order to send images of what’s going on around the house. Designed to look like a household pet, the Rovio may be better received than Rufus Terrill’s 300-pound “Bum Bot” was was designed to scare off loitering homeless in front of O’Terrill’s, his Irish-themed bar in Atlanta, Ga. According to the A.P. story, here are its specs:

A three-wheel scooter gives the Bum Bot mobility. A home-alarm loudspeaker attached to a walkie-talkie gives it a voice. Its head is a former home meat-smoker. The red lights are from a 1997 Chevrolet, and it’s powered by four car batteries.

As many neighborhood activists point out, the Bum Bot does not offer a solution to the problem of vagrancy and poverty so much as intimidate the homeless and create a Terminator-like spectacle. However, Terrill insists he is fighting the good fight against the “bad guys” and of course his patrons enjoy watching the robot’s video feed on the bar’s 60-inch TV.

Whether or not robots can help us love, they certainly can help us live. But not all robots of the near future are equipped for surveillance, intimidation, and enforcement: Some just want to help ease the burden of a farmer’s life. On April 23, DVICE reported that the Japanese robotics firm Romobility Youto has developed a strawberry-picking bot “equipped with a color-sensitive camera that can not only identify berries amidst the foliage, but also determine how ripe a strawberry is. Then it reaches out and delicately snips the berry, placing it on a tray.” Averaging only one berry every 10 seconds, the berry-picker isn’t as practical as human labor…but the farmer interviewed wasn’t complaining.

Soon robots could replace living, breathing people in even the most human of activities. On April 28, the ever-reputable U.K. Daily Star reported that, according to British artificial-intelligence researcher David Levy, robot prostitutes will be available within the next five years, and by 2050 humans will be able to have “loving, long-term relationships” with bots. Still, potential robot mates should take precautions. This April, a birth simulator (“Noelle”) delivered her robot baby (“Hal”) at a Knoxville, Tenn., hospital. So they can do that now, too.

Whether or not robots can help us love, they certainly can help us live. On April 28 The Houston Chronicle reported that the Guardium, a newly designed Israeli military robot, will “replace human soldiers in dangerous roles, and sometimes tedious missions, cutting casualties.” According to John Pike, director of the military think tank GlobalSecurity, “A robot does what it’s told, and you’ll be able to get them to advance in ways it’s hard to get human soldiers to do. They don’t have fear, and they kill without compunction.” Important, then, to note that the Guardium will likely cut casualties only for the Israeli army—not its enemies.

On a more beneficent note, a robot’s help with Kevin O’Connell’s coronary bypass surgery meant his doctor didn’t have to crack his sternum and saw into his chest. Instead, incisions were made using tiny robot arms, decreasing his recovery time and discomfort.

Far from all work and no play, a humanoid robot named Asimo will conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as it performs “Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha next month. (Organizers wonder if Asimo will have “a different take on the piece.”) Yes, the dream of human-robot coexistence is becoming more possible every day. M.I.T.’s Nexi robot has a face that displays human emotions and a plastic covering that can detect human touch.

South Korea plans to have robot-themed amusement parks by 2013 and a robot in every house by 2020. The government has even created a robot ethics code that will prevent “android abuse by humans, as well as the other way around.”

Because the more human these robots become, the more likely they are to act like assholes.

Additional research for this article was provided by Bridget Fitzgerald.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka