March 25, 2002
Two Legs Good
You've met C-3PO and R2-D2. Now meet SDR-4X, the new
"entertainment robot" Sony unveiled last week. It's a cute,
knee-high robot that lists singing and conversation among its
accomplishments — making it a lot less useful than the Star
Wars androids, but a fun toy nonetheless. It has a vocabulary
of 60,000 words, it can walk by itself, and once it gets to
know you, it will recognize your face.
SDR-4X is the newest member of the growing family of
humanoid robots, and it's one of many that will be on display A Robot Is Born
at Robodex 2002, a four-day exhibition that begins this The word "robot" was coined by the Czech playwright,
Thursday in Japan. Featuring thousands of electronic creations Karel Capek (CHOP ek) in a play published in 1920 —
of all shapes and sizes, the exhibition will focus on "robots as Rossum's Universal Robots, or R.U.R. Capek derived
partners." The official word is that "the goal of Robodex is to the word "robot" from the Czech word robota, which
provide people with 'love' and 'dreams' through robots and to means "harsh or forced labor."
realize a society where humans and robots cohabit with each
R.U.R takes place in a factory in which artificial
humans (robots) are manufactured as a cheap labor
Is that kind of society a very distant dream? Not if Honda has force. Eventually, the inevitable happens, and the
its way. The Japanese corporation's robot division is working robots declare war on the human race.
steadily to "create a partner for people, a new kind of robot
that functions in society." Over the past few years, Honda has
Rules for Robots
developed a series of robots: the oldest in the family is P1,
The science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
which came out in 1993, and the latest addition is ASIMO.
believed that for humans and robots to exist together
peacefully, there had to be a set of laws for robots that
ASIMO looks a little like a 10-year-old in an astronaut's suit. It would prevent them from causing harm to humans.
weighs about 110 pounds and stands four feet tall. "ASIMO
will truly be able to help people in the 21st century," says
So, in 1950, in a collection of stories titled I, Robot,
Honda, adding that its "dream is that ASIMO will help improve
Asimov published his Three Laws of Robotics:
life in human society." A commercial for ASIMO describes how
the little robot will be able to respond to simple voice
commands, recognize faces, carry loads, and push carts — so 1. A Robot may not injure a human being or, through
one day, it might be able to assist the elderly and help with inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A Robot must obey the orders given it by human
For the time being, ASIMO is only available for high-profile beings except where such orders would conflict with
tasks: earlier this month it rang the opening bell at the New the First Law.
York Stock Exchange. Japanese businesses can rent ASIMO,
but the rest of us will have to wait a while before such service 3. A Robot must protect its own existence as long as
robots are available for sale. Sony's SDR-4X, on the other such protection does not conflict with the First Law.
hand, will hit the stores later this year (if you're willing to pay
the price — it costs about the same as a luxury car). The dog-
like robot, Aibo, is a little more reasonably priced: the most
sophisticated model runs at around $1500. Sony has already
sold thousands of them.
It's a Robot's World
Whether for entertainment or service purposes, Sony and
Honda's robot divisions have been dealing with the same
technical challenges: how to get a robot to see, hear, walk,
climb stairs, dodge obstacles, and pick itself up if it falls over.
It's a long list and it highlights just how complex humans are
— all of our capabilities are difficult to replicate in a machine.
Engineers are making progress, though.
Robots have come a long way since the first simple models
were developed for industrial use in the 1950s and 1960s. The
robotics industry really took off following the development of
the microchip in the 1970s, which allowed for making the
"brains" of robots smaller and less expensive.
Between 1980 and 1996, the number of robots per 10,000
workers in the manufacturing industry grew from 8 to 265 in
Japan, from 2 to 79 in Germany, and from 3 to 38 in the
Number of Robots in Industrialized Countries
(per 10,000 workers)
Country 1980 1996 %
Japan 8 265
Germany 2 79
United States 3 38
The figures are still increasing. According to the Handbook of
Industrial Robotics, the number of robots in the United States
almost doubled in the 1990s, with robots doing an increasing
number of diverse jobs:
Performing tasks in surgery: In January of this Work It Out
year, the United States' first robot-assisted coronary Another of Honda's robot prototypes, P3, is built to
artery bypass was carried out. Usually, a coronary closely resemble the dimensions and design of the
bypass requires that a ten-inch incision be made in a human body. P3 is 62.9 inches (160 centimeters) tall
patient's chest. But with the robot, only three and weighs in at 286 pounds (130 kilograms). It has a
keyhole-sized holes are made between the ribs. shoulder span of 23.6 inches (60 cm).
Through these holes, two robotic arms and a tiny
camera access the heart. Because such small How does P3 compare to your own height? What about
incisions are made in the chest, the patient makes a your weight? Work out what percentage of your height
much quicker recovery. and weight P3 has.
Working in space: NASA's space shuttles are fitted
with robotic arms. Earlier this month, space shuttle
P3's "skeleton" is made of the metal magnesium,
Columbia's robot arm assisted with repairs to the
which has less than a quarter the density of steel. An
Hubble Space Telescope. NASA is also developing
object that weighs 15 pounds (6.8 kg) when made
"Robonaut," a robot that will accompany astronauts
from magnesium would weigh 70 pounds (31.8 kg) if it
on space expeditions and perform tasks that might
were made from steel.
prove dangerous for the astronauts. Also in the
works are tiny robot insects that will allow
exploration of previously inaccessible areas on other If a given object weighs 100 pounds when made of
planets. magnesium, work out the approximate weight of the
same object if it were made of steel.
Defusing bombs: Police regularly use robots in
place of humans to defuse bombs and to enter
danger zones. More Links
In news announced last week, the first human cyborg
— part man, part machine — was created. Read more
Becoming "man's best friend": Sony's AIBO
(Artificial Intelligence Robot) robot puppies are Visit the official Asimo and P3 Web site from Honda.
programmed to imitate the behavior of real dogs. You can also visit the Robodex 2002 Web site.
(But they won't chew your slippers!)
Design your own robot, courtesy of the Computer
Museum. (Requires Shockwave. Download now.)
Learn more about how the invention of the microchip
launched robot technology.
Find out more about NASA's space-robot, Robonaut, in
this article from CNN.com.
Meet Kismet, an "emotional" robot developed at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial
The Steven Spielberg movie A.I. features thinking
Thinking Machines robots.
Despite their sophistication, the heart-surgery robot,
Robonaut, and ASIMO all lack a fundamental human capacity:
the ability to think, make decisions, and be creative. Artificial
intelligence (AI) is the term used to describe this capacity for
a computer or a robot to imitate the thinking and decision-
making capabilities of the human mind.
Scientists at the AI Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) are working on several projects that aim to
create robots that think and behave like humans. One of those
projects is known as Cog (short for "cognition").
The Cog engineers are striving to build a robot that learns
behavior in the same way a child does. By interacting with its
surroundings, Cog learns simple behavior patterns — it has
already mastered hand-eye coordination skills (it can reach
out to something that it sees), and it can nod and shake its
head in imitation of its caretakers. It can also play with a
Professor Rodney Brooks, the director of MIT's AI laboratory
says that the goal of the project is to produce "a thinking
robot. If we are successful, there may not be a place for
humans in the future."