Time for another random robot round-up, in which we take another snapshot of the progress of our future friends and overlords.
Each of the following is a specific robot in development, but that’s not the best way to think about these things. It’s better to think of each of these studies as part of a greater whole. That is, anything one of them can do now, all can potentially be capable of in the future. Keep that in mind as you read about monkey-controlled robot armies, flaming ping pong balls, and soft micro robots.
Tele-Robot Armies Controlled By Monkeys
If the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys kept you up at night, you have something new to consider: a company has filed a patent for a person (or monkey) to wear a headset and control a fleet of robots at a distance.
They describe it as “a system where an operator wearing a head-mounted display and an exo-suit of sensors and actuators carries out everyday tasks. Data from the suit and from other external sensors is then analyzed by computers in the cloud and used to control distant robots. The data could also be used to train machine learning algorithms that would allow the robots to imitate the operator’s actions autonomously.”
So, the robot army could do anything the operator can do in the suit. Does that operator need to be human? No way!
“An operator may include a non-human animal such as a monkey,” says the patent, “and the operator interface may be…re-sized to account for the differences between a human operator and a monkey operator.”
Monkey-controlled robot armies. What could possibly go wrong?
Quadruped With Direct Drive Legs
Here’s a “cute” robot that has learned to bounce along, plus handle rough terrain, climb stairs, go over chain-linked fences, open doors, etc. They expect to be able to sell the Minitaur for $1500 in the near future.
Why buy one? The company that makes them says they will be great for sending out anywhere a 24/7 mobile sensor is required. Military is, of course, on their list of uses. You might want one to go check on your robot army, perhaps?
There are now drones that shoot ping-pong balls of fire.
The idea here is to get more precise with controlled burns in difficult terrains, but they might also be good for getting even. Probably shouldn’t tell the monkeys about this one.
Robot Ball In Cup
You had one as a kid - a stick with a cup on the end, with a ball attached by string. The object is to swing the whole thing in such a way that the ball goes up and into the cup.
Here is a robot learning to do just that, then perfecting the move.
This is demonstration of machine learning. You give the robot a basic idea of what needs to be done, and it “learns” from its mistakes and corrects them to perfection.
Note to anyone slacking off: this sort of thing will take your job. The price will drop to almost nothing eventually. What will you do with your free time?
Maybe there will be a role for a human to go around and make sure the robot workforce is charged up and operational.
Robots Form Teams To Recharge
These folks are working on robots that know when they are getting low on energy, and work together to charge themselves . This allows some of the “team“ to keep working at a distance while some recharge.
So much for that future career in regular robot charging and maintenance.
Soft Micro Robots
Need a tiny robot to sneak around for you? This new micro-robot uses liquid crystal elastomers - a material that changes shape using light to deform in pre-defined ways. That means researchers can make a robot caterpillar:
“The 15-millimeter long soft robot harvests energy from green light and is controlled by spatially modulated laser beam. Apart from travelling on flat surfaces, it can also climb slopes, squeeze through narrow slits and transport loads.”
The tiny, bug-sized robots are interesting to me. They’ll be used for spying, most certainly. Who would suspect an insect of espionage? Researchers also want very tiny robots to operate inside of humans, perhaps rolling around and cleaning out arteries, for example.
Would a monkey like to control an army of soft micro robots that shoot fireballs? Time will tell.
Robot That Sews
Who needs garment workers when a robot could do the sewing?
It can make a T-Shirt, though it has to use extra chemicals and water to get the jobs done. The fabric needs to be stiffed to a point where it can be held in place, but the inventor is hoping other, less-environmentally taxing methods might be developed.
Spinoza recently had an essay about artificial intelligence and humor. Time to meet Heather Knight and Data, her stand-up comedy robot.
Data is struggling to be funny right now, but if it had the advantage of a team of writers, perhaps in the form of a soft-bodied, micro-robotic army controlled by funny monkeys, we may start laughing more. And look out, hecklers. Data might one day have flaming ping pong balls to lob at the audience.
You’ve heard the news. We’re going to Mars. Really soon.
Once we get there we’ll certainly want to start ripping it up and exploiting any resources. That’s where this robot miner comes in.
This robot will travel about and scoop up soil for processing. The goal is “propellant production” which I read as “local fuel source.”
Decide Who Dies
Self-driving cars are in the news. They are better at driving than humans! (California is passing a law that removes the need for a licensed driver from an autonomous auto. Car companies lobbied and said humans are not reliable as back-up when a sophisticated car driving system is in operation. The humans will make mistakes, but the cars will not.)
It is important to remember that humans are programming the self-driving cars. Programmers must make decisions. If X happens, then what shall the system do?
For some tasks, it is easy and obvious. See a stop sign? Come to a stop.
But what about if a car with two passengers is going fast, and five people run in front of it? What if another car is coming in the other lane, and there are pedestrians on sidewalks. The car will injure someone. Which way should it go?
MIT has a new site that lets you make those moral programming decisions, asks you to judge whether it is better to hypothetically kill two passengers or five pedestrians. Once you’ve decided you can see how others felt about the same scenerios. .
Robot news is coming fast and furious. Just this morning I read about new robotic pets for the elderly. One model is a cat, the newest is a dog. Neither require feeding or cleaning, and both will act cute and give its owner ample attention.
There was another story about robots being trained to work with autistic children, customizing responses and interactions for the needs of each person. The robots are being trained to look at moods and react accordingly.
As with any technology, the technology itself isn’t bad or good. How it is used, and who is using it, determines the value. I like giving these occasional snapshots to keep us aware of possibilities and potential pitfalls. At some point in the not-too-distant future, robots will be commonplace. They’ll be cheap to the point of expendable, like hand-held calculators. Church tag sales will have areas with old robots available for a few dollars.
And so ends this episode of the random robot round-up.