by Diann Daniel

Robots: The Good, the Rad and the Plain Ol’ Scary

Apr 22, 20095 mins
Consumer ElectronicsIT Leadership

Today's robots have not reached the level of self-awareness or service that robots in sci-fi staples such as Star Wars, A.I. and Wall-E demonstrated. Still, what they can do will either have you marveling at technology or fearing for your future as the dominant species.

The Child Bot

Known for: Freakish looks and ability to learn

Despite CB2’s creepy looks, it is one of Japan’s most sophisticated robots. Created to help Japanese researchers study childhood learning, the child bot is currently learning to recognize facial expressions and cluster them into categories such as happiness. It has already taught itself to walk with the help of a human, and can recognize human touch, such as head stroking.

The Fish Bot


Known for: Fighting pollution

A school of robotic carp—equipped with chemical sensors and artificial intelligence—will be unleashed into a Spanish port to search for water pollutants. Developed by British scientists, these five-foot-long robotic fish will monitor oxygen levels and detect potentially hazardous leaks. The fish will communicate with each other using ultrasonics, and information will be wirelessly sent to the “charging hub” (where fish will charge their batteries). The port’s authorities can use this data to track the source and scale of the pollution. If this robotic pollution monitoring system is successful, researchers hope to use it globally.

The Fembot


Known for: Working the runway

Weighing about 95 pounds and standing just over five-feet tall, the fembot HRP-4C’s proportions are modeled on the average Japanese woman. HRP-4C took to the runway for Japan’s Fashion Week in March wearing nothing but her Stormtrooper-esque armor. HRP-4C can pout, smile, strut like a model and strike seductive poses. She even got nervous and mixed up some of her facial expressions during her media debut (pre-fashion show), which her inventors chalked up to the case of the nerves (aka, the hail of camera shutters confusing her sound recognition sensors).

The Telepathic Bot


Known for: Reading minds

Honda’s ASIMO humanoid robot can now be controlled with thought alone—and with a little help from brain machine interface technology. BMI tech relies on electroencephalography (EEG) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and newly developed information abstraction technology. How it works: EEG and NIRS sensors are placed on a person’s head. When the user imagines moving one of four predetermined body part options, ASIMO complies with a corresponding movement. The setup detects changes in brain waves and cerebral blood flow, which is analyzed on a real-time basis to translate what the user imagined. Tests on the process yielded a 90 percent accuracy rate, says Honda.

The Quadraped Bot


Known for: Freakish looks and strength

Even freakier than the child-bot (with a video to match), BigDog is the “alpha male of Boston Dynamics family of robots.” Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the robotic quadraped can walk, run, climb rough terrain and carry a 340-pound load. Weighing about 165 pounds, and measuring over 3 feet long and about 2 ½ feet tall, it’s the size of a small mule. (And if the pack mule thing doesn’t work out, BigDog could surely have a movie career playing creepy sci-fi insects.)

The Surgeon Bot


Known for: Ability to perform complex surgery

On a less life like front, the Da Vinci robotic surgical system helps surgeons perform minimally invasive procedures, an approach that uses tiny cameras on instruments inserted through small incisions. A surgeon sits in a console a few feet away from the patient, viewing an actual image while commanding the system in its operation. The system replicates the surgeons’ movements in real time. Robotic-assisted surgery allows for more finely tuned movements than what the human wrist can do, and 3D HD vision and two separate HD optical channels allow for more accurate depth perception.

The Programmable Bot


Known for: Becoming the official robot of the RoboCup

Nao has a cute factor that’s up with the best of them (WALL-E and EVE come to mind). Designed for entertainment purposes, the programmable robot has a computer at its core based on Linux and scripted with Urbi. Nao succeeded the Sony Aibo as the official robot last year for RoboCup. Currently in prototype the 23-inch Nao robots have been shipped to researchers. Release to the public is planned for late this year.

The Hand Bot


Known for: Restoring ability

As the first-to-market prosthetic hand with five individually powered digits, the bionic i-Limb is giving amputees a new life. Awarded an innovation in engineering award, the i-Limb simulates natural touch and sensitivity: It gives the ability to pick up a Styrofoam cup without crushing it, for example. Each finger has motor, which means each is independently driven and can articulate, and the thumb is rotatable through 90 degrees.

The Lost Bot


Known for: Relying on the kindness of strangers

Unlike many robots, Tweenbots are aimed more at answering questions about humanity’s softer side than they are at testing the boundaries of technology. Traveling in a straight line, the tiny robots were unleashed into the streets of New York with a destination displayed on a flag. The purpose? To see if people would help this little cutey get where it was going. To a large extent folks did help, rescuing the little Tweenbot when became trapped in a pothole or caught under a park bench.

The Scientist Bot


Known for: Making an important discovery

The robot scientist Adam (behind Professor Ross King and a colleague) has made its first scientific discovery—one that had stymied its human counterparts since the 1960s. Adam, created by Aberystwyth University, was tasked with identifying a gene in brewer’s yeast. Endowed with four personal computers that act as a brain, robotic arms, liquid handlers and other equipment, Adam devised its own hypotheses and ran experiments to test them. It was able to identify the gene, which is related to growth. Scientists are hoping Adam (and the next robot, Eve) will help them with data-intensive research.