Hello and welcome to this week’s Espresso of Innovation; the hottest news and strongest stories from the world of creativity and technology filtered into a quick shot of inspiration. This week we say, “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”
In our Valentine’s Espresso we mentioned that if you couldn’t find a date there might be a robot for you. Scientists at the University of Lincoln are creating robots that are able to display emotion based on mouth and eyebrow movements. This might sound creepy but it helps give the robot personality, which in turn creates empathy – something that could prove useful in a stressful situation such as search and rescue. So let’s have a look at what else they can do.
Kevin Kelly from Wired argues that robots will be doing almost everything. He argues that in the future70% of the workforce could be laid off thanks to robots, which can do their jobs quicker and more effectively. It’s an interesting perspective on the future. Recall the impact of the industrial revolution on the farming communities of the agricultural U.S. just a couple of centuries ago. With the cost of technology decreasing and robotic intelligence improving we can already see a move in this direction.
One example is taking place in Kinshasa, where robots are taking over the role of the much-maligned traffic warden to sort out the heavy traffic flow that affects the city. As one happy taxi driver stated, “Thank god for the people who invented it. The traffic police bother us too much. Let’s leave robots to do the job.”
Robots might even replace sportsmen – a happy thought to all those who hate diving in the game of football! But at the moment it’s only table tennis where the machines are encroaching. On the 11th of March, Timo Boll, a champion table tennis player, is squaring up against Kuka, the world’s fastest robot.
Robots are also doing things that were previously impossible. Scientists at Penn State University have created robots – or essentially nanomotors – that can penetrate a cell wall and, for want of a better phrase, control that cell. These tiny nanomotors powered by ultrasonic waves and steered with magnets. Professor Tom Mallouk has high hopes for the technology: he commented, “We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside.” A further medical application comes courtesy of scientists in Dresden, who are using nanotubes to control sperm cells. This type of technology means they can move robots around a body without having to worry about motorized propulsion as the sperm cell does that for it.
Finally, robots allow us to do things humans can do but in places they can’t, such as space. A number of robotic firms are turning to animal behaviours to be able to create robots that are right for the job. The Robotics Lab at ETH Zürich is taking inspiration from spiders to be able to create a robot that can navigate difficult terrain, including craters and chasms, whilst carrying a heavy load – often a limitation of flying drones. In the meantime, scientists at Freie Universität Berlin are usin gbees as inspiration to ‘teach’ robots what they should and shouldn’t do and learn from those interactions. Finally, technologists at Harvard have created a team of robots that can build a structure autonomously from each other,like termites, whilst all working towards a common goal. This allows them to build in hostile locations safe in the knowledge that if a robot is destroyed the rest can continue.
And if all that seems a bit scary and you’re worried that Asimov’s three laws of robotics won’t save you, here are some handy points to look out for as to whether your robot is trying to kill you.