By Dr. Chuck Missler
In an old joke, a scientist claims that he can do anything that God can do. When God says, "All right, you go ahead and make a man," the scientist responds, "Okay! I will!" The scientist starts to reach down to grab a handful of earth, but God stops him. "Nuh-uh," God says. "Go get your own dirt."
We still cannot build humans, from dirt or otherwise, and even C3PO is years away. Still, robotics engineers have been able to construct machines that can do some amazing and useful things, bringing us ever closer to the droids we're looking for.
It Takes a Licking...
The Swiss have built a flying robot that has been designed to hit the wall. At least, it has been built durable enough so that when it does bang into things, it won't "crunch" and ground out; it instead uses the bump to reorient itself and keep zooming through the air.
Even the most sensitive robots sometimes crash in cluttered areas, and when they do, they're dead. This robot—dubbed "AirBurr"—could be used by search and rescue to maneuver through obstacle-filled environments without expensive and complicated sensors. It keeps things simple.
AirBurr can enter areas that might be dangerous or impossible for humans to go after a disaster. Nuclear radiation, noxious gasses, flooded and clogged emergency areas don't faze these flying gadgets, which can smack into rubble, crash into the ground, then get back up and continue on their mission.
"We believe that this new paradigm will bring flying robots out of the laboratory and allow them to tackle unstructured, cluttered environments," Swiss researchers said in a 2012 paper for the International Conference on Complex Medical Engineering.
Besides built-in durability, the trick for these hoverbots is a clearly specified center of gravity. If the robot crashes, carbon fiber legs push out and scramble it into an upright position. Once it is sitting in the proper orientation, it can lift back off straight up into the air.
Away with the tedium of housecleaning. Somewhat expensive, but self-motivated robotic housemaids can now be purchased online. The Roomba770 or the Robomaid Australia vacuum robots can get the dust mice out of the corners while their owners take an afternoon nap. Floor-washing robots or gutter-cleaning robots can be purchased online, and they don't ever get bored or start complaining they need more pay.
Robots are used for a wide variety of tasks these days beyond merely automating manufacturing. They run drill rigs or drive trucks. They can collect aerial data of agricultural lands and provide targeted insecticide or weed control spray. They run the Port of Brisbane with high efficiency. (No smoke breaks.) They aren't necessarily safe to have operating around humans, since they do not recognize human presence and are not geared to avoid harm. They are kept separate from people and are monitored remotely. Yet, Panasonic has prototype robots that can do the dishes or wash hair, potentially to work as caretakers to the old or infirm.
"Ten years ago, robots were knocking on our doorstep. Now they have invaded," says Professor Mary-Anne Williams, a robotics innovator at the University of Technology, Sydney. "The new vision, the next generation, is for people working side by side with robots," Williams says. The PR2 that Williams' team has designed can tell if it has accidentally run into a person and will back up. It can give hugs and high-fives.
These robots may not be droids just yet; they don't feel fear or think for themselves, but some may be able to make decisions about what to tell Master Luke. The sophistication is growing.
Some robots can be programmed to be fairly sensitive guys. Doctoral student Jeremy Fishel and Biomedical Engineering Professor Gerald Loeb from the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering have been working on a robotic finger that can feel temperature and movement and even discriminate between textures. In the drive to provide better artificial hands, USC's BioTac finger has even been given a finger-like construction with its own fingerprints.
The finger detects movement and can discern the differences between 117 materials by way of the micro vibrations created when it travels over a surface. A hydrophone in the water layer under the "skin" of the finger picks up the vibrations and can use the surface friction to correctly distinguish between materials 95 percent of the time. The sensors are even now being sold to those who manufacture industrial robots and prosthetic limbs.
In all the brilliance of humanity, after years of research and development, we have been able to produce machines with certain human-like qualities. They can do the work they are programmed to do. They can calculate and do light-speed computations. They can "think" and "feel" and even do the dishes. Yet, they still do not come close to the magnificence of the human mind and body. They cannot produce living, thinking autonomous children that grow up and make decisions on their own, decisions that may run contrary to the principles their parents taught them. They cannot dream and love, weep and rejoice. Even with the sharing of information and the combined genius of a world of innovators, the careful, purposeful design of robots cannot match the majesty of excellence in the human mind and body.
And we've never even had to get our own dirt.
- Clumsy Insects Inspire Clever Flying Robot • Innovation News Daily
- Is that really just a fly? Swarms of cyborg insect drones are the future of military surveillance • Daily Mail
- USC Engineers Create a Robot Finger That Beats Humans at Feeling Textures • PC World
- A helping hand with the dirty work • Stuff.co.nz
- The Image of the Beast • SpiritandTruth.org (Tony Garland)