Developing a humanoid robot has long since captured the human imagination and will be the continued focus in the future of robotics. Scientists say there are two obstacles to creating a robot with human or super-human intelligence: vision and processing sensory information. “It is almost impossible to predict when machines will become as clever as humans,” admits Ronald Arkin, a robotics expert at the Mobile Robot Laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia. “Although work in magnetic resonance imaging holds great promise, researchers can now watch areas of the brain light up as individuals carry out specific mental tasks. When we have that knowledge, we can pass it on to computers.”
Motor vehicle production is one area where robotics automation is already being used. Yet imagine a world where we can read, have a glass of wine, talk freely on our cell phones or take a nap while our personal automobile drives itself from our workplace to our doorstep. Or perhaps we’ll abandon the wheeled prototypes altogether and kick back in our personal flying car like numerous science fiction films predict. So how far are we from such a future?
Well, in 2007, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency had 83 robotic system vehicles driving through a 60-mile urban course, navigating around other vehicles, pedestrians and obstacles; all without incident. Just three years ago, robotic vehicles couldn’t even drive straight across the wide-open desert without crashing. “The robotics industry is developing in much the same way the computer business did thirty years ago,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates observed.
So what is in store for the future of robotics in the workplace? The US military is one of the biggest donators to robotic research, as they hope to replace human lives with robotics automation, reducing our casualties in war. Robots are already completing reconnaissance missions, disassembling explosives and firing on enemy combatants.
Military chiefs are aiming to make a third of all ground vehicles driver-less by 2015. Researchers are also looking at robots similar to those featured in Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot” that cooperate together in a swarm-like way to complete complex tasks. Just the size of a small bug, these insect swarms look unassuming but are capable of jamming communication lines, gathering intelligence and firing at enemy combatants.
The future of robotics is taking aim at the rapidly aging population, with the end goal of providing for the elderly in places like the US which will see 97 million baby boomers in need of care or in Japan, where 22% of the population is over 65. Currently $1 billion is spent each year researching how autonomous robots can care for the elderly. Secom’s “My Spoon” robot, for instance, can feed disabled people by breaking up food into chewable morsels and spooning it into their mouths. “Paro,” another Japanese invention, looks like a baby seal and responds to the affection of lonely elderly patients, while also monitoring their heart rate and health symptoms.