Video: Dawn of the robot age?

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 2/21/2007 9:49:18 AM ET 2007-02-21T14:49:18

Someday you could be taking orders from a robot ... but in a nice way.

For example, imagine a body suit with sensors that can guide you through a golf swing like Tiger Woods'. Or a robo-birdwatcher that can tell you where to look for that rare ivory-billed woodpecker. Or an android gardener that can show you where to plant your seeds.

Those are just some of the examples of robot-human interaction sketched out by experts in the field — examples that may well become reality in the next 10 years.

The next big trends in human-robot interaction were among the topics covered here last weekend during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, featuring such pioneers as Cynthia Breazeal from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Breazeal has worked with Hollywood types for years to create friendlier, more socially aware robots, and one of her projects involves the development of therapeutic robo-toys that could improve a patient's outlook. But she told MSNBC.com that the robots of the next decade may not always match the stereotypes of robotic people (think C-3PO from "Star Wars") or animals (such as the cuddly Teddy from "A.I.").

"The technology is becoming virtually ubiquitous," she said. "Before, when the first computers came out, there were rooms and rooms of computers. ... Now, they're [embedded] in the doorknobs. Robotics is going to be the same way. You're already seeing robotics integrated into your car today."

Robotic coaches and companions
The voice-enabled, GPS-based navigational systems in cars are arguably one type of robot. Another type could be built right into your clothing. Breazeal is already working on the concept of a sensor-equipped suit that would enable a robot to read your mood based on whether you're slouching or sitting up straight. She said the concept could also be applied to sports instruction — say, for tennis or golf. The robo-suit could read how your arms move through a swing, and even give you slight nudges to improve your form, she said.

That's not to say robots will take control of your life. Rather, they're more likely to serve as artificially intelligent advice-givers, assistants or companions, Breazeal said. As baby boomers become older, they'll still want to lead active lives — but they may well welcome a little robotic help to do it.

"If i want to cook a meal, and I can't do it by myself but I could do it with a robot ... if I want to garden but I have a hard time getting down and the robot can help me do that ... that's where I would find value, as opposed to just saying, 'Go do my gardening' or 'Go cook my meal,'" Breazeal said. "As we design technology, we have to respect the human life cycle."

Robots on the watch
Robots would also make good sentinels: Ken Goldberg of the University of California at Berkeley described his robotic camera system, ACONE, which has been set up in the remote Arkansas woods to look for signs of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker . ACONE sifts through a stream of video imagery, hanging onto the pictures that appear to show birds in flight. After three months of continuous operation, the system has identified birds such as red-tailed hawks and blue herons, Goldberg said.

Slideshow: Robots with humanity "The next level is to determine what is a woodpecker as opposed to another bird," he said.

The video-sorting system could be used for other applications as well, ranging from traffic monitoring to border patrol. "The other thing we can look for is UFOs," Goldberg added.

Robotic sentinels may be watching closer to home as well. Even now, a rudimentary form of nanny-bot is on the market, capable of keeping an eye on the human nannies who are supposed to be watching the kids, said David Calkins of the Robotics Society of America.

"They've already been proven effective in terms of [seeing] nannies who are shaking babies or nannies leaving the house," he said. "In the future, I think that will be taken many steps farther. Instead of just checking in on the nanny, the robot can become the nanny. The robot can actually watch the children — to make sure the children don't leave the house, or that there are no fires, things like that."

Robots on the march?
The anticipated rise of the robots in everyday life already has sparked worries that automatons could someday become overlords rather than underlings. Prominent futurist Ray Kurzweil projects that computers will match the capability of the human brain by the year 2029, leading to a socio-technological "singularity" that cannot be anticipated.

The fears have fueled literature ranging from the seminal essay "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" to the tongue-in-cheek guide "How to Survive a Robot Uprising."

Breazeal said progress would likely come more slowly than anticipated. "There are a lot of hard problems that all have to come together," she said.

But Calkins predicted it was just a matter of time before the various technologies that go into robots — including humanlike mobility, artificial vision and machine intelligence — were combined in new breeds of robots.

"I think that singularity is inevitable," he said.

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