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August 20th, 2006 at 11:51 pm

Seven Robots Destined to Change Your Life

Forbes had a nice write-up of seven robots that are as great as the maid from The Jetsons mechanically fused with Bruce Willis, Die Hard version. Highlighted robots range from a set of mechanical arms used in prostate surgery (Doc Oc), to a robogecko that climbs windows (insurance mascot).


1.) HALLike a lot of Japanese boys who grew up in the 1960s, Yoshiyuki Sankai spent hours in front of the TV set, engrossed by the heroics of Cyborg 009 and Astroboy, half-man, half-machine cyborgs. He wanted to make these fictional half-breeds a reality. Sankai, 48, is one of Japan’s foremost experts in cybernetics, the science of merging man with machine. His work is soon to become a business, as Sankai begins selling a suit known as HAL, the Hybrid Assisted Limb. (He picked that acronym to echo the off-the-rails computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.) "My basic motivation is to develop devices to enhance and expand human ability," he says in an interview at his office at Tsukuba University, a research hub north of Tokyo.

HAL turns its wearer, if only temporarily, into a cyborg, boosting strength and endurance: Your arms can lift an extra 88 pounds beyond what you can lift without it. Nurses can move patients from their beds with greater ease. One day HAL may even let recovering stroke victims and paraplegics walk again. The suit, akin to the storm-trooper get-up in the first Star Wars, doesn’t make its wearer quicker, but it does let him tire less, easing an arduous hike up to a summit. The suit acts by reading electrical pulses in nerves going to the muscles, and it even reacts a bit more quickly than the body itself.

Sankai’s company, Cyberdyne, will rent the full-body version for $1,000 per month. The catch: You have to recharge the battery every five hours. The first customer, likely a Japanese man who lost the use of a leg after a car crash, gets his HAL in a few months. Cyberdyne (named for the nefarious robot manufacturer in Terminator films) says it has 500 orders. It is courting investors for $17 million for a factory and crew.

Sankai says robots could serve as domestic helpers for Japan’s aging population. Like many of his countrymen, he treats robots with reverence. Sankai put blue light-emitting diodes on his HAL suit to show when it is on, but, he admits, they also make it "pretty." (American pop culture, he says, usually depicts bots as villains.) Japan holds more than a third of the world’s 1 million industrial robots; the U.S. has an economy twice the size of Japan’s but a robot population only half as big.

But Sankai refuses to sell to a lucrative market: the military; he wants no army of superstrong soldiers in HAL suits. He says U.S. officials contacted him after the Sept. 11 attacks, but Sankai ended the conversation shortly thereafter. Scurrying over to a bookcase, Sankai comes back with Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot. "A robot must not injure human beings," he quotes, pointing to the first of Asimov’s three laws of robotics.


2.)  PackbotOne of the bestselling robots in history, oddly, turns out to be as ugly and impersonal as a bathroom scale. And all it does is patrol the floor and pick up lint from under the couch. It’s the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Roomba is what happens when robo-wizardry collides with practical needs. Its chief creator, Colin Angle, was an undergraduate at MIT when he built his first model, Genghis, the coolest robot ever seen up to that time (it was 1989). Genghis had six legs and moved like a cockroach, using 34 sensors and two microprocessors to wander around and avoid obstacles. It got Angle into graduate school and helped his professor get tenure. Angle’s next progeny, Attila, had 150 sensors and 12 microprocessors. It earned him a master’s degree and was exhibited at the Smithsonian. Yet, Angle says, "I had made the most sophisticated, cool, crazy-ass robot–and it left me with an empty feeling."

With his close friend since freshman year, MIT ice hockey player Helen Greiner, and their professor, Rodney Brooks, Angle formed Irobot in 1990, naming it in homage to the 1950 novel by Isaac Asimov. The aim was to make robots that made money. It went slowly for the first decade, with a few military contracts and toy designs here and there. The trio made a doll that laughed when tickled and a Jurassic Park-inspired velociraptor; neither ever caught on. "We were the longest overnight success story ever," Greiner jokes.

Lightning–or rather, lint–didn’t strike until 2002, when Irobot debuted the Roomba. It was a vastly scaled-down take on a scrapped project to make forklift-size robotic floor scrubbers for household-cleaner giant S.C. Johnson. The Roomba uses a more powerful version of the artificial intelligence in Angle’s original Genghis bug-bot. It swerves around table legs and backs away rather than plunging down a staircase. When it finishes cleaning, the Roomba finds its way back to its charging cradle. The company has sold 2 million Roomba cleaners and, since Christmas, thousands of soap-bearing Scooba moppers.

Greiner, meanwhile, focused on military work. In 2001 Irobot came out with a line of PackBots, little tanks with various mechanical arm attachments. They cost $100,000 apiece, the same as a Sidewinder missile. PackBots dispose of bombs in Iraq and clear caves in Afghanistan. One model senses the location of snipers. Another remotely spies on enemies. Coming soon: a bomb sniffer. A bigger bot called the R-Gator, perched atop a John Deere minitruck, can be programmed to patrol a perimeter. It now guards a naval air station near San Diego. The military side of Irobot, run by Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer (ret.), is now the same size as the vacuum-cleaner business.


Last year Irobot went public on the Nasdaq at $24 a share. Its stock has slipped to $18.70, giving the company a market value of $440 million. Sales for the past 12 months are at $172 million and growing, but profits are scarce. Next comes a robot lawn mower and bigger military bots that can go faster and farther. But Angle avoids taking on industrial work– too boring. To quote one Irobot motto: "We don’t do Buicks."

3.)  Pleo – Caleb Chung wants pleo to perform. "Come on," he coaxes the rubbery toy dinosaur, stroking its nose. Pleo blinks its large eyes, stretches, wags its tail and totters a few steps–then yawns and curls up for a nap.Life is exhausting when you’re a prototype robotic toy, just months away from your debut. It’s even more exhausting for principal inventor Chung, 49, and his three dozen colleagues at Ugobe Inc., who are trying to create a "designer life form," a creature that can elicit the same cooing and warm fuzzy feelings as a new puppy.

So far, so good. When Chung showed off Pleo earlier this year at a tech conference, 200 people sang "Happy Birthday" to the robot. Since then thousands have e-mailed Ugobe pleading to be among the first to pay $250 for a Pleo. They need patience: Pleo, first planned for the holidays, won’t emerge until March.

Pleo is a technical marvel, but all the wizardry is invisible, designed to create a personality. Chung knows how to prompt feelings without using words. He was a street mime; he played an orangutan on TV; he taught himself to make mechanized puppets and toys. In the 1980s he made a playful dinosaur for Mattel , but the company nixed the idea as too expensive. Chung later cocreated Furby, the big-eared fuzz ball that sold 50 million units. He retired comfortably but hankered to build a robotic dino pet.

Working with a friend, Chung came up with software that animates a four-legged robot with balanced, smooth motions. Soon entrepreneur Robert Christopher signed up to be chief executive of a new company, which he named "Ugobe" (as in, "You go be what you want to be"). They have raised $2.7 million from investors so far and bank on getting another $8 million in September.

In Boise, Idaho Chung and a dozen collaborators have modeled Pleo after a plant-eating baby camarasaurus from the Jurassic period. Pleo has an operating system, a microcontroller, 14 motors (one for each joint) and 31 sensors to detect changes in light, sound and motion. Skin has slowed Pleo’s arrival; Chung wants the rubbery material to fit snugly yet move naturally.

Pleo’s coolest feature is software that lets it react to stimuli and its environment in a thousand different ways. Touching its head can startle a young Pleo, make an older Pleo wag its tail playfully–and annoy a hungry one. Owners will be able to download new behaviors from the Web or write their own code. Young Pleos might even pick up habits or catch a cold by hanging out with other Pleos, sharing data via infrared links. "Our job is to create a relationship between Pleo and a person," Chung says. "You’ll interact with it, share an emotional language with it. Then you can play."

4.)  Intelligent Grippers - Even in this high-tech era of amazing medical tools–MRI scanners that can see deep inside the body, gamma-ray beams harnessed to zap tumors, implantable defibrillators that shock the heart to keep it pumping–surgeons still wield an old-fashioned blade to take life into their hands. But surgery strains the limits of human dexterity. Maddeningly tricky new procedures offer smaller and barely visible scars and potentially faster recoveries. In a "keyhole" prostatectomy, a surgeon carefully manipulates chopsticklike instruments through tiny slits in the body to remove a cancer-ridden prostate and reconstruct its surroundings. Surgeons liken it to putting a tractor-trailer into reverse gear and swerving flawlessly through a wicked S-curve.Is there a robot in the house? Surgery soon will become a partnership between man and machine–and it must, says Russell Taylor, world-renowned designer of surgical robots. "The average surgeon will become as good as the star surgeon, and the star will have superhuman capabilities," says Taylor, 58, an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University. The star in the operating room today is Da Vinci, a 1,200-pound, $1.5 million gadget from Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale, Calif. But Da Vinci is only a slave. A surgeon works at a nearby console to manipulate its multiple arms to perform keyhole prostate removals and other procedures.

Sleeker, more capable instruments are starting to emerge from Taylor’s airy basement lab in Baltimore. Slated for human trials within a year are grippers and retractors with force sensors to avoid gripping blood vessels too tightly or oxygen sensors to differentiate diseased tissue from healthy. In nascent development is a robotic arm that flexes like an elephant trunk to glide down the throat for scarless repairs of the the upper airways. Doctors could see what they’re dissecting using heads-up displays that overlay CT scans onto the organ in question. Another robotic tool, presently in the earliest stages of development, will let eye surgeons bust up clots inside minuscule blood vessels.

Taylor, who built his own oscilloscope the summer after high school, got a Stanford Ph.D. in computer science and put in 19 years at IBM developing an important robot software language. He switched from factory automation to computer-assisted surgery in the late 1980s. Now he must prove that his cool creations can improve patient care. "We are making a partnership between human judgment and machine capability," Taylor says.

© Oliver

5.)  StanleySebastian Thrun is very clear on the future. "Forty-two thousand people in the U.S. die in traffic accidents every year," he says. "Down the road, I know cars will drive themselves. It’s just right!" Robots don’t get drunk, fall asleep or talk on the phone. If we turn highways into "invisible rail systems," he says, we can combine the convenience of a car with the safety of a train.

This vision has been a futurist phantasm since the 1950s, but Thrun and a car named Stanley are bringing the age of the autoroad a bit closer. Stanley is a Volkswagen Touareg built by Thrun, 39, who teaches computer science at Stanford, and his graduate students. In October 2005 Stanley drove itself to a rookie victory in the Grand Challenge, a 131-mile race across the Mojave Desert. First prize: $2 million. Race sponsor, tellingly: the U.S. Department of Defense.

In the same race a year earlier none of the 15 robotic entrants even finished. Thrun entered the race last fall largely out of frustration at these results; he had just arrived at Stanford from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. Researchers there had spent years coming up with some of the fundamental principles for building robotic vehicles. Analyzing tons of data was key: They packed cars with ever more sensors to navigate the world around them.

But Thrun knew that sometimes the data points are simply wrong. He had built a robotic tour guide for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1998, and the contraption got confused when people waved at it. Thrun taught his bots to stop trusting all data equally and instead assign some probability to its utility and accuracy.

"The robot has to figure out: Is this data a wall? Could it be a kid? Could it be a shadow or a trick?" Thrun says.

Stanley sports five global-positioning antennas, six Pentium M computers, five laser range finders and a video camera. To train Stanley’s brains, Thrun and his crew drove it 1,000 miles over desert terrain to reveal what conditions drivers deem critical and what they ignore. A bad bump jostling Stanley’s sensors might accidentally produce data indicating a wall ahead even if the road is clear. Stanley learned to downplay such data and stay attuned to more significant obstacles.

To win the race in October Stanley took six hours and 54 minutes; Carnegie Mellon’s car needed another 11 minutes to finish. Best of all, Thrun says, 5 contestants finished (of 23 total). "We all won. The robotics community won." The next Grand Challenge is in November 2007, with a 60-mile romp through a city yet to be named. Contestants will have to avoid static obstacles and, most important, one another. Thrun will be ready with a new Volkswagen Passat. "To make robots really useful," he says, "they will have to deal with traffic."

6.)  StickybotCockroaches inspire Robert J. Full. So do crabs, geckos and a closetful of other creepy creatures. Not that he likes them. "I think they’re disgusting!" says Full, a professor at UC, Berkeley. "But how do they move like they do?"

This biologist believes he can best nature. He has spent his life scrutinizing the ways many-legged animals scamper over bumpy terrain and scoot up a wall or even glass. Working with Mark Cutkosky of Stanford University and other mechanical engineers, Full designs robots that use these principles. "We don’t want to copy nature," Full says. "That’s a totally mistaken idea. Nature inspires us."

In April Full, 48, and Cutkosky, 49, unveiled their most recent bio-inspired robot, the two-foot long "Stickybot," which strides up a window much like a gecko but at 1.5 inches a second. "Everybody wants to know if Stickybot can do windows," Cutkosky says. "I just want robots that can look for cracks in the Bay Bridge."

Stickybot is the result of a decadelong collaboration between Full and Cutkosky. When they met, Full already was a leader in unraveling the principles of animal locomotion. He has measured the force of cockroaches’ footsteps and the stiffness of their legs. (The legs of most creatures, insect or human, work like a pogo stick; the stiffness of the "spring"–the muscle–strongly influences their speed.)

"Cockroaches can run even faster by standing on their rear legs and running like bipeds." Full says.

Working with Irobot (see p. 94), Full developed a crablike machine that walks on land and underwater. With researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, he built a six-legged robot the size of a shoebox; it traverses rocky trails without tipping over. Pixar tapped Full for help in giving characters in A Bug’s Life more personality through motion.

Cutkosky, meanwhile, had been making a name for himself by developing dexterous robotic hands. He became an expert in bonelike structures built by layering materials with different properties, a technique called shape-deposition manufacturing. Instead of making a robot’s limbs with solid plastic, Cutkosky can make them, for instance, with an elastic core and a tough outer shell.

The duo has made various families of robots, each with their own talents. Some, inspired by cockroaches, sport six legs and can clamber over rocks. The speediest of these moves at 2.7 yards per second.

Getting robots to climb walls is a tougher challenge. "Even five years ago I would have had no clue how to build Stickybot," Cutkosky says. A dozen motors and embedded tendons made of fabric and cables let Stickybot maneuver each of its four legs and 16 toes independently.

Those toes are the real marvel. Geckos can cling to glass by a single toe because each has millions of fibers so tiny they stick to surfaces through weak molecular forces. Stickybot does the same, using hundreds of tiny tapered stalks measuring 10 microns (that’s four ten-thousandths of an inch) at the tip. Because the tips are sharply angled, Stickybot’s toes stick going in one direction and peel off easily when pulled the other way. Stickybot, funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could get stickier still. More sensors and motors would let it sense when it is about to fall off a wall or when it needs to rotate its feet, as geckos do, to climb down.

8.)  Mindstorm NXT – Soren Lund oversees Lego Mindstorms, the world’s most popular line of robot tool kits. His new Mindstorms NXT retails for $250 and boasts better software as well as a Bluetooth wireless connection. More impressive are the engineers who put the new version together–a hundred hackers who fell in love with the original version.


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