Robots. They've been entertaining us for years. The Droids, the Terminator, the Cylons.
Those sentient robots - the ones that walk, talk, think, and feel - usually come from a technologically advanced future. But, how close are we to that future? Humanoid robots exist today. Just look at Honda's ASIMO, Sony's QRIO, or Mitsubishi's Wakamaru.
Did you know? Robots have been made to mimic insects, fish, octopus, snakes, and birds!
Robotics experts face many challenges when trying to make the next C-3PO or Rosie the Maid. Here are just a few of many to think about. Motion
Walking isn't as simple as you'd think. Take a step: how do you do it? Within a second, hundreds of muscles are working together to keep your balance as you shift your centre of gravity. Now, think about how complicated running and jumping are!
Did you know? In the 1930s, Westinghouse invented some of the first humanoid robots: The 7 foot tall cigarette smoking Elektro had human controlled arm and head movements, and even had a pet robotic dog, Sparko!
Engineers carefully studied human motion to create ASIMO, one of the first robots to successfully walk. It even runs at 6 kms/hr and climbs stairs! Powerful motors control its limbs, while a system of sensors 'feel' the ground under its feet, and gyroscopic sensors tell ASIMO if it's balanced. ASIMO is composed of strong, durable materials needed to support its motion and is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
Scientists are also developing 'artificial muscles'. This technology uses compressed air to imitate real muscle contractions and simulate human motion. Sensation
Robots need many sensors to interpret the surrounding world. Pressure and temperature sensors can mimic touch; microphones integrated with sound and speech recognition software can mimic hearing. Cameras and pattern recognition software can mimic sight. ASIMO actually recognizes and reacts to different faces!
It's only a matter of time before the chemical-based senses of smell or taste are incorporated into humanoid robots. These sensors have already been used in scientific robots that study volcanic, underwater, and deep space environments. Integration
Robots need to connect their sensory pathways to their motor pathways, otherwise they would be walking into walls.
Fish, mouse, and monkey brains can be hooked up to robotic limbs and control their movement, demonstrating that biological connections can work in robotics. Complex electronic systems have been designed to mimic animal neuromuscular pathways, communicating sensory information to a 'brain' (processor), which interprets the information and sends commands to the motors.
Can intelligence be mimicked by a machine? Now this is a loaded question.
Some say yes if you have the proper 'neural-type' wiring and pre-programmed responses and knowledge. The latest ASIMO uses advanced AI to independently make decisions about where to walk, how to greet people, and even how to work in teams.
Did you know? Robot cars in the 2007 DARPA5 challenge used AI to independently race through a course of city roads, all while following preprogrammed traffic rules and adapting to other cars.
The Darwins are little non-humanoid robots that actually 'learn', not acting solely on preprogrammed AI responses. Using mechanical neural networks, they explore their environment, build new experiences, and use these experiences to make further decisions. Each Darwin would have different 'memories', so in a sense, they're actually 'individuals'.
So can we make sentient humanoid robots? What about emotion and consciousness? Can these be simulated?
It's a daunting task, but there was a time when making a robot walk seemed impossible. Robotics has made amazing strides, and experts are continually developing exciting new intelligence, materials, and power technologies to tackle the mechanics of movement and the intricacies of intelligence. Perhaps one day we'll see the creation of robots like the ones we see on film.
Bill Gates: 'A robot in every home', Scientific American
Mimicking human muscles:
Watch the videos!
Science Magazine: (Special Edition on Robots) Volume 318 (5853). November 16, 2007.
resource on everything robotics
Genie has a Ph.D. in medical genetics and protein biochemistry from the University of Toronto, and currently works for a breast cancer research group. When not in the lab, she spends her spare time cooking exotic cuisine and camping on the Bruce peninsula.