The Rise of Robo Sapiens

The robotics industry continues to grow, innovate and create new products. A recent NY Times article covers Atlas, an experimental robot built for the department of defense.

AtlasAtlas - pictured standing quite proudly to the right - is hydraulically powered and equipped with both laser and stereo vision systems.

It also comes with a chest compartment that shines with blue lights. This doesn't appear to add any practical value, but it's cool looking.  

The key quote comes from the CEO of a robotics company:

"A new species, Robo sapiens, are emerging," ..."

OK, this is more than a bit of hyperbole. We don't yet need to run for cover due to a Cylon attack.  But robots are becoming more capable and their costs are falling.  

A good example is Baxter, a general purpose industrial robot from ReThink Robotics.  Shown in the short video below (and yes, he comes with the expressive eyes and eyebrows), Baxter is designed to do simple, repetitive tasks that are hard to automate.

Baxter's also designed to work safely with people.  And with a price point around $22,000, Baxter is affordable for a growing range of applications.  

A number of trends are driving the growth of robotics.  Camera, sensor and computing capabilities have dramtically increased over the past decade, yet their costs have substantially declined. This has made it much cheaper to create robots.

But the big shift has been the growth of machine learning (also called artificial intelligence). This is the ability to build algorithms that allow machines to learn and improve. This field has exploded over the past decade.  

PBS explores the growth in their video The Rise of Artifical Intelligence (AI), shown below. It provides a good overview of the topic. But in my opinion it overstates how quickly AI will advance - especially in the area of emotions and true "thinking".  

My favorite part of the video is at the end when it suggests robots may eventually decide they no longer need humans. This is a topic long explored in science fiction, which also provides a solution with the famous 3 Laws of Robotics.

Steve 16 Jul, 2013

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