If you thought all borgs, droids and bots were objets dfantasy that existed solely as figments of Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Spielberg & Co. fiction, then you have another think coming. Believe it or not, you can go and buy yourself a consumer robot to vacuum the house, wash the floor, plumb the gutter, fetch things for you, clean the swimming pool, mind the kids, minister people with disabilities, take care of the aged and the infirm even today.
On another plane, there are industrial and government application robots that undertake first response action in volatile situations, assist soldiers during warfare, or nip nimbly about hazardous zones. Even as you read this, there are bots out somewhere sniffing, scouting, sneaking, stalking engaged in bomb disposal, sniper detection, remote reconnaissance and surveillance, fire fighting, checkpoint inspection, explosives identification, perimeter patrolling and more...
Though Arthur C. Clarke may disagree, the actual work for robots it appears lies not so much in intergalactica right now as it does on the terra firma of our very own Blue Planet. Because, having stepped out of papyrus pages and celluloid frames, robots are increasingly attempting to make our lives easier by taking on the chores we detest or threaten our life and limb.
Heres a look at some of the coolest super-gadgets humankind has ever constructed.
Mitsubishi Wakamaru Receptionist Robot
May we introduce to you Mr Wakamaru! Over three feet tall and tipping the weighing scales at 30kg, he is togged in bright yellow plastic attire, locomotes smoothly about on a set of wheels and is always wearing that bug-eyed expression and the silly smile. Developed by Mitusbishi as a work robot, Wakamarus resume says that he can recognise faces, converse comfortably using a vocabulary of 10,000 words, and carry out simple manual tasks.
He has applied for the job of a receptionist in Japanese hospitals and offices where he will be expected to meet and greet visitors, guide them to their various destinations in the building, entertain them with his singing while they wait, and then courteously thank them.
In its second avatar (the first one was launched in 2005), Wakamaru will acquire more dexterous arms to help him carry drinks, newspapers and magazines and also open doors. Incidentally, you cant buy this dude; you must rent him out from Mitsubishi.
It may stand one-metre tall (minus socks). But see it working as babysitter-cum-security guard and it will knock your socks off. Roguns eyes are in fact a pair of cameras that provide a constant stream of images to its facial recognition faculties that help it sift out the bad guys from the good.
Even as it plays with your nestlings or follows them around, it wireless beams out a video feed of all the goings-on to you so that you can keep tabs on the brats. As a security guard, it functions as a videophone as well as an wireless Internet medium that alerts you the moment it detects an unfriendly (read unknown) visage in the vicinity of your house.
The twin-armed biped is also a compact PC with a seven-inch LCD screen embedded on its chest. Thus, it can be used as a wandering Web terminal or mobile media player by kids. KornTech, its Korean manufacturer expects to launch it soon for around $5,000. Its heart and eyes maybe in the right place to look after your brood and bode, but dont expect Rogun to be adroit with the broom.
Those of you who have dwelt in the hills or rainy/snowy climes will know what an abominable task cleaning rain gutters can be. This most oddly named and most un-robot looking device has been invented solely with one purpose mind: To automate, ease, and speed up gutter cleaning. It is equipped with a rotating three-stage auger (three-speed blade) that sweeps leaves, debris and other muck out of the gutter.
A detachable handle serves as a wireless remote and allows you to control the droid while standing safely on the ground rather than clambering up and down ladders as Looj trundles along with its gutter decontamination, de-clogging and decongesting tasks on the roof. Allegedly, it can clean a 60-foot section of gutter in about 10 minutes.
This $120 animatronic brainiac integrates The Concise Encyclopedia from Britannica, a dictionary, and a world history timeline, and deploys voice-recognition technology to respond to verbal queries. It serves as an interactive roommate that children can use as an academic aide or talkie toy.
It quizzes the child on his/her likes and dislikes and uses these responses to personalise its conversations and crack jokes. It plays word, memory, and trivia games, and recites random trivia facts. Built-in also are digital clock, calendar, MP3 player jack, integrated speaker, and retractable keyboard.
It stores telephone numbers and when connected to a phone line becomes a personal telephone operator that dials family and friends with voice commands.
El-E (pronounced Ellie) is a go-fetch-it home helper robot that has been invented to help people with mobility impairments. Instead of telling El-E to go pick up a glass or book and come and give it to, you simply point at the object with a laser pointer. Therefore, it can retrieve objects without needing to comprehend what the object is called or what it is at all.
This cleverly circumvents any language, accent, or nuance intonations problems that have arisen in the past with previous retrieval bots. It is fitted with a custom-built, omni-directional camera to locate objects.
The Ubuntu Linux driven El-E estimates its distance from the object, travels to it, uses sensors and a laser range finder to pick it up with a gripper and then deliver it or place it elsewhere if guided by the laser pointer again. Not quite ready ready for prime time yet, it is learning to operate light switches and open and closing doors.
iRobot Roomba & Scooba
While Roomba is a robotic vacuum cleaner for your flooring, its sibling Scooba is trained to wash and dry various types of hard floor surfaces. Roomba sucks up dirt, dust, pet hair, litter, and other debris from your carpets and floors. It skirts stairs, drop-offs and off-limit areas.
Scooba, on the other hand, preps, washes, scrubs and squeegees tile, linoleum and sealed hardwood floors while avoiding all rugs and carpets. The fussy fella covers each area of the floor an average of five times, using only fresh cleaning solution each time and depositing all grime into its dirty water tank.
Both bots navigate around automatically once you have pressed the Clean button and let them loose. They work themselves under and around furniture beneath cabinet edges, tables, chairs, into corners, along wall edges, and other tough-to-reach places. Since theyre battery-driven, its look-ma-no-wires all the way.
Anybots Monty has just sacked your maid! Standing 5ft 7-in tall, weighing 160 pounds, he skates about on has two autonomous balancing wheels, and uses twin arms to do the dishes and similar dreadful drudgery. Though it can recognise objects sadly it is not self-powered yet. Since it must be connected to external sources electricity and pneumatic actuators for compressed air it has to be tethered down and trails a tangle of wires along. You can check in on what Anybots other humanoid automatons are up to at www.anybots.com /media.html.
They call it a home exploration and telepresence robot. Simply put, Rovio is a tri-wheeled home security device that can roll around your premises and tell you whats happening thereabouts.
It uses Evolution Robotics Northstar artificial intelligence technology for navigation and awareness of its surroundings in a house or commercial building to patrol, and a remote-controlled directional webcam camera along with an in-built WiFi to stream live audio and video of its patrol route back to you across the Internet.
The $299 Rovio can be controlled via a computer or game console and is intelligent enough to be able to self-dock for recharging itself when it is running out of juice.
Sinai Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Its past 1am. One of Dr Alex Gandsas patients is quite critical and requires immediate attention. But the bariatric surgeon is a thousand miles away, attending a conference. Yet minutes later the patient is being examined/spoken to by a reassuring Dr Gandsas. How? Because Gandsas employs the $150,000 video-conferencing Bari Robodoc to visit his patients in an emergency, or at night.
Fitted with a couple of cameras, a screen and a microphone, the joystick-manipulated robot is manoeuvred to Dr Gandsas patients whenever required. Bari is in fact a RP-7 Remote Presence Robotic System by InTouch Technologies. It can circle the patients bed, adjust cameras according to the demanded viewing angle, also allowing the good doc to interact freely with the patient in telepresence via screen and microphone.
ApriPoco is a universal remote with a difference it learns commands from users poco a poco or little by little to replace the several remotes that litter our households. Squatting in Toshibas human-centric laboratory near Tokyo, the 27cm rotund ducky-bird with fat flapping wings and large, bulbous eyes can switch on or off TVs, air conditioners and lamps in response to voice commands.
It has also learnt to remember programme names and genres. The robot, a descent of Toshibas 2003 ApriAlpha, is being readied as a commercial product but needs more development before it takes wing for shop-windows. You can see ApriPoco in action at www.youtube.com /watch?v=JK_ysJcA5-Y.
OLE Fire Fighting Beetle Bot
The OLE Beetle Bot is an off-roader. It looks like a beetle and is designed to extinguish fires in locations that are inaccessible to other human equipment like forests. Invented at the University of Magdeburg-Stendal only in April this year, the autonomous OLE is guided by a GPS system and outfitted with infra-red and heat sensors, intelligent feelers, fire-resistant armour, six legs, tanks of water and powdered fire-extinguishing agents.
According to its developers, the bot will dangle a price tag of $125,000-$200,000 and a posse of 30 OLEs will be able to patrol an area spanning 7,000sq km.
Miuro Robot Speaker
The egg-shaped Miuro Robot Speaker is an intelligent iPod boom-box with built-in multiple sensors that is designed to follow you around the house while it plays your tunes. A little joystick allows you to control the audio and the motion.
Available in four different colours, the 5kg roller boasts of a high-res VFD screen to display the text and the title, a 4-channel digital amplifier, two woofers and tweeters. It can metamorphose into a wireless speaker for your PC via WiFi.Additional software also allows you to use it as a mobile remote security camera for your home or office that can be controlled via your cellphone.