News Stories

Robots in Our Future (Is One of Them You?)

Surgeons have carried out an operation on cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick so that his nervous system can be wired up to a computer. He?s the world?s first cyborg -- part human and part machine.

Computer readings can be taken from the implant in his arm of electrical impulses coursing through his nerves. These signals encode movements like wiggling fingers and feelings like shock and pain. He hopes this leads to a medical breakthrough for people paralyzed by spinal cord damage, like actor Christopher Reeve. Warwick also hopes that some day the human brain can be upgraded with implants for extra memory, intelligence or X-ray vision.

The two-hour-long operation was carried out by a team led by neurosurgeon Peter Teddy under local anaesthetic at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, England. Surgeons implanted a silicon square about 3mm wide into an incision in his left wrist and hammered its 100 electrodes, each as thin as a hair, into the main nerve. Connecting wires were fed under the skin of the forearm and out from a skin opening.

The wires will be linked to a transmitter/receiver device which will relay nerve messages from Warwick at Reading University to a computer by radio signal. Warwick, aged 48, was relieved to find he could still move his fingers afterwards, since he was afraid the operation might paralyze his hand.

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The U.S. Army is developing technology that will replace human soldiers with robots on the battlefields of the future. A spokesman for the Pentagon?s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says, ?The aim is to be able to do everything you would ever need to do on the battlefield, using a combination of manned and unmanned systems. They would be able to fire at things, defend themselves, do reconnaissance and find targets.?

Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, are in a bidding war to work on the $154 million project. Officials believe that a first generation of battlefield robots will be ready for ground combat within 10 years.

Robot ?seekers? are being designed to help to hunt for enemy hideouts, signal their location and call in firepower. Other new weapons being planned include advanced laser guns and microwave cannon that can be fired from unmanned vehicles traveling at up to 60mph, which will take over many of the functions of tanks. More advanced versions of the pilotless aircraft used in small numbers over Afghanistan would launch guided missiles and ?smart? bombs at the targets identified by the ground robots.

Kendell Pease, of General Dynamics, says, ?We believe we can get this system on to the battlefield by the end of the present decade. If we get this right it will give our forces concentrated lethality, available immediately. Everything will be smaller and lighter, especially the proportion that is robotic. That will make it easier and quicker to deploy them, and the robotic element won?t need feeding so there will be less logistical support needed. The army will have a lot more punch, and a more timely punch.?

Bob Sherman, a weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, says, ?If this works, it will be a concept of combat that?s far ahead of anything that exists now. There?d be a greater degree of automation, fewer people at risk and lower personnel costs.? He adds that even expensive robots will be cheaper than people, once you consider long-term costs of training, logistical support and veterans? benefits.

Sherman says, ?Are we going to give an intelligent robot the authority to decide when to start shooting? Just imagine the complications if a machine had to do that.?

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Chris Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Computing Culture group at MIT?s Media Lab, was frustrated by the lack of solid news from the Afghan conflict, so he has designed a roving robot reporter called the Afghan Explorer.

The remote-controlled robot could help journalists look for news in the world?s most dangerous places, witnessing battles at close range and even conducting interviews. The invention is modeled on NASA?s Mars Explorer. The robot can acquire and transmit audio and video and even interact with subjects.

Csikszentmihalyi was unsatisfied with the grainy, faraway shots of falling bombs that he saw on TV, so he decided to create his newsbot with standard hardware, available anywhere, so that more news organizations will be tempted to use them. He plans to put the instructions for building one on the internet. The Afghan Explorer is about the size of a large dog and is powered by solar-charged battery packs. High-torque surplus motors from copy machines drive its rugged all-terrain wheels. It?s controlled by satellite phone and navigates using global positioning system technology.

It can be aware of its environment through the use of accelerometers, thermometers and distance sensors. A video console mounted atop a forward shaft is a video screen framed on each side with small Web cameras, which gives the console a face-like quality which is appealing to people being interviewed. It can travel about four to five miles per hour and range about 35 miles per day. A flag with a peace symbol flies from an antenna to indicate neutrality. ?It?s a stupid idea that somehow robotics can replace a person,? says Csikszentmihalyi. ?But no one is bothering to ask, ?Is a Predator unmanned plane as good as a human soldier???

Csikszentmihalyi hopes to send the first robot to Afghanistan in about three months. He intends to initially control the device from his laboratory but base the controlling software on the web so people around the world can take turns directing it.

Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, asks, ?Would the robot know what to do when someone yells ?incoming? I?m not sure how practical it is.?

Csikszentmihalyi says, ?In many ways this is no substitute for a human, and likewise, if this rolls over a land mine, that?s not such a bad thing.?

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Sony Corporation has invented a robot called SDR-4X that can sing and dance with either fluid or funky motions. ?Sony is basically an entertainment company,? says Toshi Doi, president of Sony?s Digital Creatures Laboratory. ?So it?s natural we would develop a robot for entertainment.?

Honda Motor Company has created the Asimo robot and believes that robots should perform useful jobs for their human masters. ?It is in the end a machine, a tool,? saysMasato Hirose, Honda?s chief engineer in charge of Asimo?s development.

?It has emotions. It has instincts,? says Masahiro Fujita, a scientist in Sony?s digital creatures group. ?There?s very little danger with an entertainment robot.? Toshi Doi believes that robots will soon care for ill or disabled people and do not necessarily need a human form or the ability to walk.

It has a vocabulary of 60,000 words and can ask, in a high, squeaky voice, ?Please hold still for a minute while I memorize your face.? It can walk on uneven surfaces, get back up when it?s pushed over and come when it?s called.

The creator of Honda?s Asimo hopes it will some day be a useful household companion. It?s more than twice as tall as the SDR-4X so that it can move effectively around a home and interact with such objects as tabletops, doorknobs and stairs. ?If you are going to have something that can move with ease in a human environment, then it is better to design the robot like a human, says Hirose. It can be used as a security guard or helper for the elderly.

Honda leases the Asimo to businesses for $152,400 a year, but Hirose says that by the time he retires in a decade or so, he hopes they will be cheap enough so that he can buy one for himself and get it to bring him a beer when asked.

Sony?s Doi says he expects the SDR-4X will be priced about the same as a luxury car and hopes they?ll be available for sale by the end of the year.

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