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National Robotics Week to highlight the past, present and future of robot research

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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robot, Asimo, HondaMore than eight decades after Westinghouse Electric Corp. introduced Televox—a crudely conceived humanoid that could answer the telephone and route calls—robots finally have a week out of the year that they can call their own. In addition to celebrating how far robots have come from their humble beginnings as strictly mechanized labor, National Robotics Week (April 10 to18) is an opportunity for researchers and industry to promote a future where robots routinely perform delicate medical procedures, serve as companions to the elderly and infirm and aid troops in combat.

Underlying this enthusiasm for the potential that robots have for improving manufacturing, health care, military and other facets of society is a concern that the U.S. is rapidly falling behind the European Union, Japan and Korea in the field of robotics. This concern came to a head last year when a consortium of U.S. academics and business executives drafted a "national roadmap" (pdf) that calls for an increase in funding for robotics research domestically.

This roadmap, which has the support of Rep. Phil Gingrey (R–Ga.) and Rep. Mike Doyle (D–Pa.), cites a 2009 study led by Georgia Tech indicating that the U.S. is falling behind in robotics as Japan, the EU and Korea have announced commitments of $350 million, $550 million and $1 billion, respectively, to robotics research. The roadmap articulates 5-, 10- and 15-year goals for the development of robotic technologies for use in industries including construction, healthcare, manufacturing and mining.

"We’re trying to connect the dots between what’s been done in robotics and the impact this has had in a number of areas," says Matt Mason, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

When the Robotics Institute opened in 1979, robots were thought of primarily in terms of automating manufacturing facilities, but the researchers’ purview soon expanded to projects as diverse as Ivan Sutherland’s six-legged walking machine, the Terrestrial Navigator (or "Terregator") for unmanned navigation of mines and other dangerous locations, and a mobile manipulation system called the Tessellator designed to carry out servicing operations on NASA’s Space Shuttle. One of the institute’s most defining moments came shortly after it opened, when a team led by robotics professor William "Red" Whittaker created a series of robots to help clean up the March 1979 partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania.

"Over time, robots came to be seen as more than a way to perform dull, dirty or dangerous work that humans didn’t want to do," Mason says. "The attitude toward robots has changed more to thinking that these technologies would work well with people rather than replace them."

The robots (and the researchers behind them) will get a chance to strut their stuff in a couple of months at National Robotics Week activities held in cities including Boston, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The event is being organized and sponsored by number of tech companies (including iRobot Corp., Adept Technology and VEX Robotics), universities (including Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and consortiums (including Pittsburgh’s Technology Collaborative, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Image of Honda’s Asimo robot courtesy of Romram

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  1. 1. hotblack 8:29 pm 02/9/2010

    I’m primarily interested in the development of fully autonomous machines that are capable of procuring materials and reproducing themselves.

    That will change a few things.

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  2. 2. wolfkiss 3:23 am 02/10/2010

    Robots will certainly replace some while helping more. But what’s always left out of the equation is how we will become them and they will become us. It’s already happening with implants and BCIs. Industry is already on this; e.g. Emotiv’s gaming products ( I hope the media can get over the "us vs. them" is the only future assumption, because we all need to understand that the future will mostly be "we are them". If we, as a culture, can’t see this obvious reality, we will be left behind.

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  3. 3. Wayne Williamson 7:09 pm 02/10/2010

    hotblack…i’m both for and against this…
    pros…turn them loose and reap the benefits
    cons…turn them loose and have them turn on us.
    I think the pros out way the cons if sufficient restrictions are built in…maybe…

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  4. 4. eco-steve 11:57 am 02/15/2010

    Robots and computers were basically designed to replace humans and thereby increase profit margins.
    When technology increases public wealth they may be considered to be of some value to humanity.
    As things are, everything from call centers to farming is being automated and will finally result in a world without wages, so no buyers and no profits. Crazy!

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