Communication has been mastered digitally. We can now text and talk or even Face Time constantly. It seems as if every aspect of our communicative lives are, or can be, governed by technology. Machinery is even easing everyday chores; there are vacuums that tidy the house without needing to be operated manually and some cars are able to parallel park themselves. However, there are still many menial tasks that must be performed by hand. Loading and unloading the dishwasher, making beds, cooking meals and folding laundry are still chores undertaken by human beings—at least for the time being.
Flashing back to the 1970s-era cartoon “The Jetson’s,” there was no mention of anything as marvelous as the Internet, yet there were many references to wonderful futuristic devices such as self-making beds and robotic maids that performed all the menial tasks such as dusting, dish washing, and cooking. Although technology has helped us in some of these tasks (for example, ovens and microwaves are forms of technology that assist with cooking) there has not been nearly as much progress between computer assisted physical actions as there has been toward communicative technology. However, now that communication has been firmly fused with technology, it is likely that scientists and engineers will put increasing attention on making robots that ease chores.
The labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are famous for their innovative technological breakthroughs. In fact, the MIT Museum has dedicated time to the study, display, and research into artificial intelligence and the many potentials it holds for the future. According to the MIT Museum website, the exhibition titled Robots and Beyond offered visitors “a behind-the-scenes look at the inventive concepts and processes that lead MIT’s AI labs to great contributions in many areas including medicine, underwater exploration, and entertainment.” MIT researchers illustrate how robotics can help people. Medically, robots can be tele-operated for surgery and they can also serve as highly-functional artificial limbs. Additionally, some robots can look and act like humans and these “socially intelligent” humanoid robots are able to interact with their environments and surroundings in ways that seem typically human.
The “Robust Robotics Group” at MIT is dedicated to doing research into all sorts of robotics, from GPS systems, to medical aids, to mobile manipulation devices. MIT is responsible for several interesting studies involving robotics. For instance, in 1993, a team of MIT scientists built “RoboTuna,” in order to construct a robotic submarine that could reproduce the way tunas swim. Such a device would work like a submarine and could be used for national security purposes. Their quirky endeavor, that is actually shaped like a tuna, was a success. London’s Science Museum even has a “RoboTuna” on display.
MIT also has a resident robot known as “Kismet.” Kismet is a humanoid robot who is able to communicate with human beings and even stimulates emotions via an ability to mimic human facial expressions. In other words, Kismet is a robot that is programmed to have the same socialization skills as the humans that created it. Kismet was built in 1997. It has ears, eyes, and a mouth in order to have a distinctively human appearance and thus mimic human facial movements. Although Kismet is an experiment as of now, it is possible that soon prototypes like it could be used as companions to people who are lonely or somehow incapacitated. As technology advances, things that once seemed outlandish become possible. Kismet can be seen in action here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KRZX5KL4fA
Humanoid robots have long been a staple of Science Fiction stories, but they are slowly but surely becoming integrated into everyday life. Although factory machines are still the most common type of machine in daily society and computers (including tablets and iPhones) are the leaders in consumer technology, humanoid robots that can perform human-like tasks (including chores) are becoming increasingly popular. A quick Google or YouTube search of the term “humanoid robot” will reveal content about a number of such machines that are rapidly being built. Presently, companies are still trying to decipher how to use them, or market them.
One of the most impressive humanoid robots is Honda’s “ASIMO” that can move in a way that is almost identical to a human being. ASIMO was created in 2000 and since then the model has been dramatically improved. ASIMO is an acronym for “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility” and its ultimate purpose is to be a helper to human beings. ASIMO is not as visually humanistic as Kismet (it resembles a man in a spacesuit), but it can speak clearly and follow orders precisely. During an appearance at the Consumer Electronic Show, ASIMO moved so much like a human being that some audience members wondered if the robot was really a man in a suit. ASIMO can recognize objects, gestures, postures, surroundings, and even faces which allows it to interact with humans and recognize each individual human as a unique entity. ASIMO is programed to understand distance and direction. ASIMO is also programed to face a person when they speak to it or approach it. Even more astoundingly, ASIMO can interpret voice commands and hand movements of human beings such as handshakes, waves, and points. ASIMO has become a bit of a mechanical celebrity and it even appeared on a British quiz show in December 2011. Products such as ASIMO could be sold on the market and used as robotic housekeepers—much like the fictional cartoon housemaid “Rosie” on the “The Jetson’s.” Provided technology like ASIMO is continued steadily over the next years, it is likely that humanoid robotic helpers such as these will be commonplace in all households by the 22nd century. To read more about ASIMO view the official website: http://asimo.honda.com/
Another impressive addition to the world’s collection of humanoid robots is NAO which can speak and act like a human being. NAO looks like a toy and is much smaller than ASIMO, giving it a child-like appearance. Fittingly, NAO is often used in educational studies involving children and it was recently awarded the “Best Educational Robot Award.” According to the NAO website:
“Robotics is one of the latest technological innovations, and a humanoid robot is an ideal learning tool for classes at all levels. Robots allow students to connect theory with practice and discover a wide range of robotics-related fields, such as computer science, engineering, and mathematics. Students gain hands-on experience using NAO, and, when used in the lab, they discover exciting topics such as locomotion, grasping, audio and video signal processing, voice recognition, and much more. NAO also allows teachers to integrate team work, project management, problem solving, and communication skills in a stimulating setting. NAO offers the flexibility for developing interdisciplinary projects.”
This is a fascinating consideration that blends virtual technologies with hands-on experience. If robots such as NAO continue to have educational benefits then, provided that they are placed on the market at reasonable price, they could be a good tool to use even by homeschoolers. NAO has also been used in research into human-machine interactions, including how people with autism react to these machines. NAO robots were even used in a stimulated football (soccer) match in the “Robots Soccer World Cup,” giving an example of just how life-like these creations are. More information about NAO can be found here: http://www.aldebaran-robotics.com/en/
As technology branches out into bigger an better things it is likely that the predictions of many science fiction films and novels will come true and soon human beings will have humanoid robots in their homes in order to perform many of the menial chores that we consider tedious and time consuming. Computers have already changed the way that we communicate and there are already robotized toys on the market that mimic pet behaviors (known as “SmartPets”), hence humanoid robots are likely to be the next innovation…that has been a long time coming. Since the 1950s scientists and writers have predicted that robots would become the ultimate aid to the housewife and now, in the 21st century, it seems as if that prediction might finally become a reality.