Dec 04 2014
Quite possibly the holy grail of robotics is the anthroform robot, a robot which is bipedal in configuration, just like a human or other great ape. As it turns out, it's very tricky to build such a robot without it being too heavy or having power requirements that are unreasonable in the extreme (which only exacerbates the former problem). The first real success in this field was Honda's ASIMO in the year 2000.ev, which most recently uses a lithium-ion power cell that permits one hour of continuous runtime for the robot. ASIMO is also, if you've ever seen a live demo, somewhat limited in motion; it can't really jump, raise one leg very far, or run as fast as an average human at a gentle trot. That said, recent Google acquisition Boston Dynamics (whom many like to make fun of because of the BigDog demo video) recently published a demo video for the 6-foot-2-inch, 330 pound anthroform robot called Atlas that children of the 80's will undoubtedly find just as amusing. To demonstrate Atlas' ability to balance stably under adverse conditions (vis a vis, a narrow stack of cinder blocks) they had Atlas assume the crane stance made famous in the movie The Karate Kid. If it seems like a laboratory "gimme," I challenge you to try it and honestly report in the comments how many times you topple over. Yet to come is the jumping and kicking part of the routine, but it's Boston Dynamics we're talking about; if they can figure out how to program a robot to accurately throw hand grenades they can figure out how to get Atlas to finish the stunt. I must point out, however, that Atlas is a tethered robot thus far - the black umbilical you see in the background appears to be a shielded power line.
In related news, a video shot at an exhibit in Japan popped up on some of the more popular geek news sites earlier this week. The exhibit is of two ABB industrial manipulators inside a lexan arena showing off the abilities of their programmers as well as their precision and delicacy by sparring with swords. The video depicts the industrial robots each drawing a sword and moving in relation to one another with only the points touching, then demonstrating edge-on-edge movements and synchronized movements in relation to one another, followed by replacing the swords in their sheaths. If you watch carefully you can even tell who the victor of the bout was.
A common trope in science fiction is the security droid, a robotic sentry that seemingly exists only to pin down the protagonists with a hail of ranged weaponfire or send a brief image back to the security office before being taken out by said protagonists to advance the plot. Perhaps it's for the best that Real Life(tm) is still trying to catch up in that regard... Early last month, Silicon Valley startup Knightscope did a live demonstration of their first-generation semi-autonomous security drone, the K5, on Microsoft's NorCal campus. The K5 is unarmed but has a fairly complex sensor suite on board designed for site security monitoring, threat analysis and recognition, and an uplink to the company's SOC (Security Operations Center) where human analysts in the response loop can respond if necessary. The sensor suite includes high-def video cameras with in-built near-infrared imaging, facial recognition software, audio microphones, LIDAR, license plate recognition hardware, and even an environmental monitoring system that watches everything from ambient air temperature to carbon dioxide levels. The K5's navigation system incorporates GPS, machine learning, and technician-lead training to show a given unit its patrol area, which it then sets out to learn on its own before patrolling its programmed beat. Interestingly, if someone tries to mess with a K5 on the beat, say, by obstructing it, trying to access its chassis, or trying to abscond with it, the K5 will simultaneously sound an audible alarm while sending an alert to the SOC. The K5 line is expected to launch on a commercial basis in 2015.ev on a Machine-As-A-Service basis, meaning that companies won't actually buy the units, they'll be rented for approximately $4500us/month, which includes 24x7x365 monitoring at the SOC.
No, they can't go up stairs. Yes, I went there. I debated adding this news story for a couple of days, which is why it took me so long to write this post. Frankly, it's a little more outre' than I'm ordinarily comfortable writing about but fuck it, nobody ever said that our grim cyberpunk future was going to be safe for work. Though technically this post is still SFW some of the things mentioned in the linked articles might not be. Use your best discretion.
There is a phenomenon in psychology called the uncanny valley, in which some things look almost but not quite human, and it's that "not quite" that makes people react poorly to them. Usually people act with revulsion but sometimes people (usually children) have very strong negative reactions. It's been a sticking point in the fields of robotics and prosthetic makeup for many years. Many attempts at making lifelike automatons have been made over the years but none of them have really caught on.. though the latest generation might have a fighting chance. At the Tokyo Designers’ Week Showcase early in November a geminoid (female-sculpted android) called Android Asuna designed and built by A-Lab was demonstrated. Visiting onlookers expressed astonishment at Asuna-san's skin tone and facial expressions; a few onlookers didn't realize that Asuna-san was an android and bowed respectfully before asking her permission to take a photograph. Up close a few eccentricities could be detected; the eyes don't blink quite right (eyebrows don't move when people blink) and the automaton's motions are probably governed by servos and PWM controllers but the tone and structure of the skin certainly goes a long way. Asuna was remotely controlled by an operator, which technically makes it a telepresence unit. I find the claim that AI research will produce a fully independent geminoid-type android dubious at best; AI isn't there yet, and strong AI certainly isn't. Still in process is naturalizing body language and motor dexterity.
Most interesting, I think is that some of A-Labs' geminoids have already been used as actors in stage productions. Coupled with the amazing voice synthesis software that's come out of Japan in the past ten years (I, of course, refer to Vocaloid, the incredibly popular line of synthetic speech software that has even inspired a new generation of cosplayers (yes, each Vocaloid voice has its own anime-style idoru associated with it)) it's not inconceivable that entire stage productions (there are already concerts, some with recreations of long-dead real people) of androids might be on the horizon. Mita Takeshi, CEO of A-Lab said in an interview that the has plans to turn one of their models of geminoid into an international pop idol singer in shades of William Gibson's novel of the same name.