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Robot Special: Almost Human
Date: Sunday, February 05, 2006 @ 02:27:18 EST

New ScientistRobots are on the march. Already, 1.5 million Roomba vacuum-cleaning bots are crawling the globe, and autonomous planetary rovers are working overtime on Mars. But this is only the start of what engineers are hoping to achieve.

They walk, talk and handle objects like we do - New Scientist prepares for a new era in robotics

The goal is to build robots that can be let loose in our world, where they will learn to interact with humans in a messy and unpredictable environment, not just in the lab. These robots need to be able to get around in the same places we do, manipulate objects in their surroundings and communicate with others around them. In short, they need to be more like us.

Lifelike humanoid robots have eluded designers because the mechanisms required to perform such tasks as emulating a hand, or walking and talking in anything approaching a natural manner, are hugely complex and need fine control. Honda's humanoid robot Asimo can walk up and down stairs, fetch coffee and greet visitors. But its gait is deliberate and plodding, and the useful work it can do is severely limited. What's more, all the tasks Asimo can carry out have to be pre-programmed; it cannot act autonomously. Such dumb, choreographed behaviour has tended to cast robotics in a rather pitiful light, and robot toys have never quite got off the ground. Sony even cancelled its robot entertainment programme last week.

But as helpmates, huge leaps in computer power and advances in control software, sensors and actuators are allowing machines to shed their clunky image and gain impressively human-like abilities. The new breed of bots may not look as slick as Toyota's trumpeter, but by digging deep into the fundamentals of locomotion, speech and dexterity, their creators have come up with designs that will put today's robots in the shade.

Over the three features listed above, New Scientist lifts the lid on the most stunning advances in humanoid bots. Researchers are poised to pull together developments in three key fields - walking, talking and manipulation - to produce a new generation of human-like machines. And when artificial intelligence catches up, they will not only be able to clean the house, do the dishes and take out the garbage, but also to play with children, help care for the elderly and even explore the farthest reaches of space and perform repairs or search-and-rescue missions in hazardous sites on Earth.

If that prospect has you worried that machines will soon be in control, rest assured. Their bodies may become more human-like, but their brains will still be woefully simple in comparison to ours. Take the problem of getting a robot to decide for itself what to do. Oliver Brock, an expert on robot dexterity and navigation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says we are only beginning to give machines the ability to work out the right sequence of actions to accomplish a task. Robots may soon be doing things for us that we cannot, or will not, do for ourselves. But they will depend on us for a long time to come.

Source: New Scientist

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