Robot helpers: The real-life droids you’re looking for
BB-8, R2-D2, C-3PO, Rosie Jetson, Johnny 5, Wall-E – popular culture is packed with examples of friendly, sentient robot sidekicks who just want to serve us. Yet despite the human race having sent robots to Mars and beyond, there remains a distinct lack of interactive robots in most of our daily lives. But that might finally be about to change thanks to a few key developments.
Of course, NASA has more money to throw at robotics than us mere mortals. Today, however the processors, sensors, tiny motors and other components involved are vastly improved and have become much cheaper to produce, thanks largely to the smartphone revolution. Advances in 3D printing and the open source software movement have dragged costs down even further, to the point where emerging social robots are just about in the realm of what is typically seen as affordable – at least for those who can comfortably purchase high-end personal computers or used cars.
A second, arguably even more important, barrier is gradually being overcome too: humanising the technology. It’s a fact that, for every adorable R2-D2 in our collective memories, there’s a HAL 9000 or a Terminator hell-bent on driving us to dystopia. Stories like I, Robot and The Matrix have conditioned us to fear a global cybernetic revolt where robots take over our lives and control our every move.
Technology is being developed to enable robots to recognise and respond sensitively to our emotions. They can perform gestures and expressions that mimic ours – like sagging shoulders or a curious head tilt –making it easier for us to form bonds with machines.
Unlike fabled “robot servants”, family robots are intended to engage, delight and enrich our lives. They will help keep us organised with reminders about appointments or medication doses. They will provide genuine companionship and help the elderly live independently for longer by being present and ready to call for help if needed.
“The most important thing for us is to fight loneliness,” explained Bruno Maisonnier – founder of Aldebaran Robotics, a French company that produces a number of social robots including Pepper and NAO – in an interview with Yahoo Tech. “If you’re angry and losing your humanity, NAO can detect that and do something to help you bring it back. It actually helps humans be more human. That’s the part nobody expects.”
JIBO – the runaway crowd-funding success story that reached its goal within four hours – is pegged as “the world’s first family robot” and will start shipping in late 2015. Standing stationary at a diminutive 28 centimetres (11 inches) tall, he eschews the traditional humanoid form in favour of something altogether more Pixar flavoured and he simply wants to make your home life run that little bit more smoothly.
Reading his surroundings with a pair of hi-res cameras and 360-degree microphones, JIBO recognises faces and understands natural language. In-built artificial intelligence algorithms help him learn about you, adapt to your life and communicate with you via a naturalistic range of social and emotive movements, screen displays, gestures and sounds.
NAO is one of the most sophisticated humanoid robots ever built, not to mention one of the cutest. Standing 58 centimetres (23 inches) tall, he is completely programmable, autonomous and interactive. He can walk, dance, sing, hold a conversation and even drive his own miniature robot car! Currently in his fifth incarnation – known as NAO Evolution – he has, in fact, been constantly evolving since he burst on to the scene in 2006.
NAO reads his surroundings via sensors including cameras, microphones, sonar range finders and tactile pads. Today he can recognise familiar people, interpret emotions and even form bonds with those who treat him kindly – roughly mimicking the emotional skills of a one-year-old child.
With a battery life of more than 1.5 hours and an electrically motorised body whose joints give him 25 degrees of freedom, he can navigate his world avoiding obstacles, pick himself up if he falls, and – most importantly – bust out impressive dance moves.
A key feature of NAO’s programming is the ability to learn and evolve. Over 500 developers worldwide are engaged in creating applications to run on his NAOqi 2.0 operating system and three gigabytes of memory. Being autonomous, NAO can download new behaviours on his own from an online app store.
Today, NAO is the leading humanoid robot used in research and education worldwide, with more than 5,000 NAO units in over 70 countries, according to his creators Aldebaran Robotics.
Pepper is the first autonomous social robot designed to live with humans. Like us, he reads emotions by analysing facial expressions, vocal tone and gestures, and engages people in meaningful mood-appropriate conversations. He exudes 1.2 metres (four feet) ”of pure style”, rolling around autonomously for up to 14 hours at a time, and even knows when it’s time to plug himself in for a recharge.
Pepper learns from his interactions with humans and uploads his generalised findings to the Cloud so that he and other Peppers can evolve as a collective intelligence. This is welcome news because, so far, his jokes are pretty lame! Since June 2014 Peppers have been used in SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan to greet and assist customers. The first 1,000 models were made available to consumers in June this year and sold out in under a minute.
Personal Robot is a smart personal assistant equipped with a heavy dose of artificial intelligence (AI). The 1.2 metre four-foot tall robot consists of a sturdy, wheeled base and a sensor- packed interactive screen carried by a telescopic strut. It navigates its environment autonomously, using in-built mapping algorithms to build and memorise the floor plan.
The gender and characteristics of each Personal Robot are customisable and its AI algorithms bring together face, emotion and object recognition, natural language processing and wireless connectivity to allow it to interact seamlessly with its environment and owners. Its creators, New York City start-up RobotBase, expect to start selling the robot by the end of 2015.robot, droid,
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