Sunday, October 14, 2007
Thursday, April 05, 2007
We love... Robots
ROBOTS have captivated cinema audiences and book readers for decades. There is nothing quite like the clunking, Frankenstein-like walk of a mechanical "human" to send a chill down the spine.
And robots have leapt from the screen and the printed page to play a part in our everyday lives.
Most of our cars have been spray-painted, welded and bolted by robots, "thinking" spy planes brimming with missiles are hunting for Osama bin Laden and robots are used in hospitals to dish up drugs to order.
The word robot was first introduced by Czech writer Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) which was written in 1920.
It was an adaptation of the slavic word robota which meant drudgery.
When sci-fi enjoyed a huge boom in the late 1940s and '50s with films, comic characters like Dan Dare and books like i, Robot from Isaac Asimov, robots began to become familiar.
And nothing raised their profile more than the phenomenally successful Star Wars movies which paired the comic R2D2 (Artoo for short, played by Kenny Baker) utility robot with the pretentious golden protocol android C-3PO, probably the most famous robots in cinema history.
It was writer Arthur C Clarke who highlighted the potential dark side of robots with his invention HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic) computer which starred in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey.
HAL was ultra-sophisticated and was even programmed to appreciate fine art.
Unfortunately for the crew of the Discovery, he was also programmed to lip-read.
When the astronauts whisper about shutting down HAL when he makes a mistake, he cottons on and turns murderer, the human side of him failing to accept death.
In the film world, robots tend to be mechanical systems with a primitive "brain", androids are robots which look like humans and cyborgs are a mixture of human and robot.
The cult movie Blade Runner centred on the dilemma faced by robots which become "too human".
Set against a dystopian, acid rain-plagued city of the future, a band of renegade Nexus-6 androids led by Rutger Hauer (said to have played the part like a cross between a Commanche warrior and a Shakespearean hero) hunt down their scientist maker who has given them a limited lifespan.
Their protagonist is the government agent Dekard (Harrison Ford) but there is a nagging feeling Dekard himself could be a "skin job", the art of android making having become so perfected only hours of psychological testing could tell them from humans.
Currently, hundreds of bomb disposal robots such as the iRobot PackBot and the Foster-Miller TALON are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military to defuse roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Domestic robots are also available which do vacuum cleaning and grass cutting.
Other domestic robots have the aim of providing companionship (social robots) or play partners (ludobots) to people. Examples are Sony's AIBO, a commercially successful robot pet dog, Paro, a robot baby seal intended to soothe nursing home patients, and wakamaru, a humanoid robot intended for elderly and disabled people.
One of the first recorded designs of a humanoid robot was made by Leonardo da Vinci in around 1495.
His notebooks, rediscovered in the 1950s, contain detailed drawings of a mechanical knight able to sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw. The designis likely to be based on his anatomical research recorded in the Vitruvian man.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Robots
1 “Robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “drudgery,” and first appeared in the 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The drama ends badly when the machines rise up and kill their creators, leaving a sole lonely survivor.
2 They say it was an accident. The first known case of robot homicide occurred in 1981, when a robotic arm crushed a Japanese Kawasaki factory worker.
3 More than a million industrial robots are now in use, nearly half of them in Japan.
4 Archytas of Tarentum, a pal of Plato’s, built a mechanical bird driven by a jet of steam or compressed air—arguably history’s first robot—in the fifth century B.C.
5 Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for an armored humanoid machine in 1495. Engineer Mark Rosheim has created a functional miniature version for NASA to help colonize Mars.
6 Slow but steady: The real Mars robots, Spirit and Opportunity, have logged 10.5 miles trudging across the Red Planet for more than three years. The unstoppable droids were built to last 90 days.
7 The United States’ military corps of 4,000 robots includes reconnaissance Talon bots that scout for roadside bombs in Iraq and PackBots that poked around for Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Afghanistan. Apparently without much success.
8 PackBot’s manufacturer, iRobot, has also sold more than 2 million Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, with the same environment-sensing technology.
9 Low tech vs. high tech: Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have reportedly used ladders to flip over and disable the U.S. military robots sent to scout out their caves.
10 Elektro, the world’s first humanoid robot, debuted in 1939. Built by Westinghouse, the seven-foot-tall walking machine “spoke” more than 700 words stored on 78-rpm records to simulate conversation.
11 Life is tough in Tinseltown: Elektro later appeared in the 1960 B movie Sex Kittens Go to College.
12 R2-D2 is the only character that appears unchanged (by aging, say, or a funky black outfit) in all six Star Wars movies.
13 R2’s dark secret: It was played by actor Kenny Baker, who by the end was mostly given the boot and replaced by CGI.
14 Chris Melhuish of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory created robots that use bacteria-filled fuel cells to produce electricity from rotten apples and dead flies. The goal: robots that forage for their own food.
15 Mini Me: Australian researchers are trying to build a microrobot that would mimic the swim stroke used by E. coli bacteria. It would be injected into a patient so it could take a biopsy from the inside.
16 Cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick calls himself the world’s first cyborg, with computer chips implanted in his left arm. He can remotely operate doors, an artificial hand, and an electronic wheelchair.
17 Winebot, built by Japan’s NEC System Technologies and Mie University, can ID scads of different wines, cheeses, and hors d’oeuvres . . . up to a point. It recently mistook a reporter’s hand for prosciutto.
18 MIT’s Media Lab is trying to make robots personal, developing RoCo—a computer with a monitor for a head and neck—and Leonardo, a sort of super-Furby designed to respond to emotional cues.
19 No strings attached! Robotics expert Henrik Christensen predicts humans will be having sex with robots within four years.
20 Hans Moravec, founder of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, predicts that robots will emerge as their own species by 2040. “They could replace us in every essential task and, in principle, operate our society increasingly well without us,” he concludes, oddly cheery.