Of all of our technological nightmares, none seems to instill more dread than the rise of the robots. From Terminator; to I, Robot; to Westworld, the robot apocalypse has been a staple of science fiction for years.
But are the robot overlords really taking over?
Toiling in factories for decades, robots are beginning to evolve beyond manufacturing tasks. They are running, opening doors and getting ready to take on jobs ranging from short order cooks to health care workers. Supported by a growing body of research into artificial intelligence, these robots are also using machine learning to outperform humans. So while the idea of a robot apocalypse may be greatly exaggerated, these machines are evolving a lot faster than you think. Here are 10 of the most advanced robotic technologies that should scare the crap out of you.
Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty
If you've ever been frightened by a jumping spider or a hopping bug, the Disney Stickman is definitely going to flip you out. Designed to work on complex movements, the Stickman is actually three connected sticks or segments, plus a cluster of three laser range finders and an inertial measurement unit (IMU). The IMU can gauge linear acceleration and rotational rate (like an acrobat), and a gravity-driven pendulum (like a trapeze) is used to launch the Stickman into the air.
The robot extends its segments midflight to perform a somersault, while the range finders measure its position relative to the ground. It then can make quick adjustments to land safely on its back. There's no word on when Disney will use the technology for animatronic dancing bears or leaping Lincolns.
Would you trust a robot to cook your hamburger? Miso Robotics says its culinary bot, Flippy, can not only cook a paddy to perfection but, with its 3D vision system and thermal sensors, also learn how to make them better and faster, thanks to artificial intelligence. The autonomous giant robotic arm can sear 150 to 300 burgers an hour, the company says, and Flippy has already been deployed at a CaliBurger in Pasadena, California.
It's something of a repeat performance; an initial trial of Flippy found that it was too, well, robotic to handle the grilling chores properly. The robot reportedly didn't always get the cooked patties on the tray. While the latest iteration of Flippy doesn't have to wear a hairnet, its design has been improved to make it easier to clean. If Flippy works out, CaliBurger plans to put similar models in 50 of its restaurants by the end of next year, at a reported cost of $60,000 to $100,000 each.
Credit: Miso Robotics
Maybe you're not being paranoid when you imagine robots that can chase you … and open doors. Boston Dynamics' SpotMini is that kind of mechanical beast. Known for its amazing balancing robots that can navigate challenging obstacle courses, the company took its headless, robotic dog Spot and shrunk it down to 66 pounds to create the SpotMini. The quadraped can run around for about 90 minutes on a single charge and employs a raft of sensors to stay upright, including stereo video cameras, depth cameras an IMU), and position and force sensors in its legs.
The canine bot can sidestep obstacles, build a map of its surroundings, open doors and even climb stairs. Should it tip over, the recently added arm can help the mechanical dog right itself. SpotMini should be available for commercial use next year (pricing yet to be announced), and the company expects it to be used in security, construction and rescue operations.
Credit: Boston Dynamics
A couple of years ago, Atlas, the bipedal robot from Boston Dynamics, could handle packages, pick up boxes and make its way over uneven forest terrain. It could even withstand some hockey-stick abuse from a researcher, picking itself up off the floor without complaint (watch the video). Today, Atlas has evolved to the point where it can run.
When first conceived, Atlas was over 6 feet tall and weighed over 350 pounds. Today, thanks to advanced materials and 3D printing, Atlas is a more compact 4 feet 11 inches tall and weighs just over 165 pounds. Boston Dynamics hasn't said how fast Atlas can run, but he's certainly faster than horror-movie monsters.
To stay upright, the latest version of Atlas uses hydraulics (rather than electronics) and has 28 individual joints, battery power, stereo vision and lidar (light detection and ranging) to get a 3D view of its surroundings. Atlas is more than just an exercise in designing whole-body robotic manipulation. A fleet of these robots could handle dangerous warehouse chores, construction tasks and, yeah, military operations to stop the next zombie apocalypse.
Credit: Boston Dynamics
We're not sure anyone is ready for it, but scientists are working on creating a robot that can dress you. Researchers at Georgia Tech have been trying it on for size, teaching a robot how to dress a human, one arm at a time. Why would you want a robot to dress you? Such machines could be used in place of caregivers to help people who have trouble handling tasks like putting on a shirt.
The robots could also handle basic nursing tasks in a hospital, including more intimate procedures that patients may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed having a human perform. Although the researchers didn't explicitly say it, there's the very real challenge of having a robot gently getting you dressed without hurting you (like tearing off your arm in some nightmarish scenario). Getting just the right moves down with exactly the right amount of force is no simple task, and what may be comfortable for one person may not be for another. Not to mention the weird having-a-robot-see-you-naked thing.
Credit: Georgia Tech
You thought scarecrows were spooky? How about a robot that rolls through fields spraying weed-killing herbicide all by itself? Robots in farming are expected to be very big agribusiness in the years to come, able to work long hours in harsh conditions with the exactitude of GPS and the precision of high-resolution sensors to maintain crops. Ecorobotix, for example, has developed an autonomous Robot Weeder to exterminate unwanted plants.
It looks like a rolling solar-panel array with spider-like arms and a camera perched atop a stalk up front. The Ecorobotix killer tracks crop rows and ferrets out weeds in and between rows. (It can even identify different types of weeds.) Two spindly robotic arms underneath then hit the weeds with micro doses of herbicide.
It's more efficient and safer than spraying herbicide over an entire crop, according to the company. And the machine weighs just under 290 pounds — considerably less than any tractor — so it can go out into the fields without compacting the soil. Switzerland-based Ecorobotix hopes to have the weeder on the market by the end of the year.
To accurately emulate human movement, the best solution may be to graft actual biological material onto mechanical parts. That is the Vincent Price-like concept behind the field of biohybrid robotics. Much of the work in biohybrids has focused on using living muscle tissue to improve robotic movement.
At the University of Tokyo, for example, researchers attached a pair of opposing muscles to a rotatable joint. The muscles are grown from a sheet of myoblasts (beginner cells). Then, they're attached to the robot skeleton with anchors and are hooked up to electrodes to stimulate muscles contractions. The result is a biohybrid finger that can perform such fine motor functions as picking up and putting down a ring. No, they haven't created a crawling hand … yet.
Credit: Institute of Industrial Science/University of Tokyo