Summary:

Are Cylons in our future? Robots can already perform complicated tasks — from navigating mountain roads to winning on quiz shows. Daniel Butler explains how science fiction is starting to look more like science fact.

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Thanks to recent work in robotics, science fiction is starting to look more like science fact. Today’s robots can perform complicated tasks — from cleaning up oil spills to solving a Rubik’s Cube in record-breaking time. With advancements like that, Cylons can’t be too far off. Here’s hoping we can keep the peace.

Self-driving Audi TT

Will robots soon become our ideal chauffeurs? Considering that each year 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents worldwide, any help robots can offer would be most welcome. Luckily, car technology has been a particularly fertile sector for robotics.

Move over KITT, now there’s the Audi TT. Developed by Audi and graduates from Stanford University, this car is one of the world’s most advanced robotically assisted automobiles. In 2010, the self-driving car navigated the twists and turns of Colorado’s Pikes Peak mountain. Using state of the art GPS technology that communicated its position to within less than an inch, the car finished the 12.42-mile course in 27 minutes. An expert rally driver usually reaches the 14,110-foot summit in 17 minutes.

(For more robotic cars, check out the iPad-controlled car or the Tailbot, a robotic car inspired by leaping lizards.)

Raytheon XOS 2 exoskeleton suit

Robots have been used for some time in military operations, particularly to locate and defuse bombs. Soldiers often operate these robots remotely, but the Raytheon’s XOS 2 robotic exoskeleton suit is an interesting melding of human and machine.

Like a cross between the suit that comic book hero Tony Stark dons as Iron Man and the cargo loader that Ripley maneuvers in “Aliens,” the XOS 2 enables the soldier inside to lift more than 16,000 pounds in a day without feeling fatigued. The combination of its high-powered internal combustion engine and high-pressure hydraulics makes the XOS 2 a formidable piece of kit. Although it is still being developed, this type of robot machinery may soon be seen in factories and freight yards.

Robonaut 2

The “Star Wars” film universe was heavily populated by robots, and these days they are a very real and vital part of the NASA space program. Launched on its final mission, the Discovery space shuttle carried six people and one humanoid robot named Robonaut 2. Robonaut 2 will perform routine chores and dangerous tasks onboard the International Space Station, enabling the rest of the crew to focus on their work. It can also perform maintenance and repairs on the ship’s exterior, an especially risky job for humans.

ASIMO

Designed to help people who lack full mobility, Honda’s ASIMO debuted in 2000. In 2011, a streamlined and more autonomous model was unveiled. The new model has enhanced visual and auditory sensors. These sensors enable ASIMO to process information faster and more effectively, which helps it learn from its environment. ASIMO famously appeared on the British quiz show, “QI,” in December 2011. On the show, ASIMO politely served host Stephen Fry a cup of tea, danced with contestant Jo Brand, and then beat its human competition in the quiz.

ECCEROBOT-2

This year’s stars of the Robotville Festival at the London Science Museum were two super-advanced humanoid robots, the ECCEROBOT-2 and iCub. Developed by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich, the ECCEROBOT-2 has realistic muscles and tendons made from elastic. This  musculature works in conjunction with 80 DC motors to mimic human movements and actions.

iCub

The iCub was created by the RobotCub Consortium, a group of European researchers who study artificial intelligence and human cognition. Standing about three feet high, the iCub has a childlike face, which uses sensors to decide which facial expressions to make.

The iCub has learned an astonishing range of tasks, including crawling, walking and archery. (It can hit the mark dead center.) Its ability to mimic human actions has earned the iCub a great deal of attention — and a nomination to be a torch bearer for the London 2012 Olympics.

More advanced robots will continue to rise, making a world populated by humans and humanoid robots seem less like fantasy and more like reality.

Daniel Butler works at VroomVroomVroom, a car rental company based in the UK. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user JohnGreenaway.

 

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