Rise of the robots

Watching the videos of Asimo in action, it’s easy to believe these robots will be bustling around the office and carrying our shopping home within the next ten years, but surely if these robots can be trained to assist us, they can also be trained to replace us?

Rise of the robots

It’s a suggestion the companies deny vehemently: “Our emphasis is on developing robots that can work with people, not necessarily replace them,” responded Toyota’s Nolasco. “In many cases, these robots are intended to be paired with people. When a robot carries a heavy windshield to a car body moving down the assembly line, and a person guides the windshield into place on the vehicle for a proper fit, the robot is not replacing a human being. In the more distant future, we may consider applications in fields that involve highly dangerous work, in which case they could substitute for humans, but it’s all about respect for people.”

Battle buddies

It’s a noble sentiment and one particularly applicable to military research, an area in which the US Government alone is spending billions in an effort to replace soldiers on the battlefield with robotic equivalents. Leading this charge is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of the Department of Defense born in 1957 out of the US’ embarrassment at losing the space race to the Russians.

Sporting a US$3 billion (£1.6 billion) budget and a mandate to fund technologies that “prevent technological surprise for us and create technological surprise for our adversaries”, DARPA has overseen some incredible innovations in its 51-year history, including development of unmanned aerial vehicles capable of conducting autonomous reconnaissance over dangerous airspace, and the Talon bomb-disposal robot, 800 of which are currently employed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Capable of being blown up and repaired between ten and 15 times before being retired, US officials claim the Talon has served in more than 20,000 missions, saving hundreds of lives in the process – something which its creators claim has produced a rather curious knock-on effect. “The army has sent us wonderful letters of appreciation from the New York recruiting office, saying these robots have helped them enormously in attracting candidates to join the service,” boasted vice-president of Talon Robot Operations, Bob Quinn.

There’s also the more lovably off-beat projects, such as Big Dog, a robotic pack mule that apes animal movement so perfectly that a demonstration video of one slipping on ice actually elicited sympathetic groans from viewers in the PC Pro office.

Equally jaw-dropping is the DARPA Urban Challenge, a yearly competition that waves a $2-million (£1.1-million) prize at the team that can create the fastest driverless vehicle capable of navigating traffic lights, junctions and car parks, while avoiding buildings and dealing intelligently with unexpected obstacles. The competition has been running for almost four years and has already gained a cult following among those who enjoy watching trucks attempt to park in shops, and jeeps career recklessly into oncoming traffic. Despite these setbacks, DARPA ultimately hopes to create “autonomous vehicles capable of keeping war fighters off the battlefield and out of harm’s way”, while the rest of us wait for the day when the technology creeps into our cars and drives us home after a heavy night in the pub, an enticing prospect that even optimistic estimates put at least 20 years away.

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