Skilled robots set to infiltrate schools and military

Microprocessor technology has helped to create the first generation of robots capable of interacting with humans in fields such as administration, security and even education.

This handout picture, released from Japanese auto giant Honda Motor 11 December 2007, shows the company's humanoid robot Asimo serving tea to Honda employees, as Honda unveiles an updated version of Asimo which can operate multiple Asimos to share tasks together in coordination to provide uninterrupted service. Honda will start its trial service at the company's headquarters from 12 December. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE AFP PHOTO / HONDA MOTOR / HO
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Humanoid robots serving mankind's every need have long been a staple of science fiction. But fiction is rapidly becoming reality, with countries such as the UAE about to see futuristic human-like robots playing an increasing role in everyday life.

Technology gurus of the 21st century used to ridicule the notion of human-like metal robots performing mundane tasks around homes, schools and offices. But microprocessor technology has helped to create the first generation of robots capable of interacting with humans in fields such as administration, security and even education.

The trend is being led by the Japanese. For more than a decade, Japan has seen robots as a potential solution to two continuing problems facing Japanese society: an ageing population and natural disasters. In 1998, Japan's ministry of economy, trade and industry started to promote research and development of "humanoid and human-friendly robotics systems" in conjunction with major manufacturers such as Honda and Fujitsu.

Development of the hardware and software needed to create a new generation of humanoid robots began officially in 1998.

Since then, manufacturers in the US and Europe have also begun to develop humanoid robots capable of undertaking all types of tasks normally performed by people. The first generation of commercial domestic robots designed to behave like living creatures was a US$2,000 (Dh7,346) robot dog developed by Sony, the Japanese electronics giant.

Called Aibo, it was launched in 1998, but was cancelled about six years later as part of a belt-tightening exercise by Sony. Although early robots such as the Sony Aibo met with limited success on the part of consumers, the latest generation of robots is about to take the world of work by storm. Some manufacturers are also beginning to gear up to produce robots aimed at the domestic market.

At the International Robot Exhibition held in Tokyo in November, close to 300 organisations showcased robots designed to perform all kinds of human functions. Subaru and Sumitomo, the car makers, for instance, showed off a vacuuming robot that halves the time needed to clean high-rise buildings. The tall robot has a touch-panel control as well as obstacle sensors.

Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology even exhibited a female-like robot, the HRP-4C Miim, which walks with a swinging gait akin to a human.

Robots are also making inroads into more challenging fields, such as education. The France-based Aldebaran Robotics, for instance, is partnering with the US-based chipmaking giant Intel and has developed a robot named Nao that has been designed to fit the educational needs of schools and universities.

The diminutive 55.8-centimetre-high robot is fully programmable and can speak, move, walk, dance and play sports. A fully featured Nao costs €12,000 (Dh55,887), although the head alone - complete with all the cognitive functions suited for a classroom - can be bought for €2,400.

According to Aldebaran, the Nao is being deployed in classrooms in the UAE, where it will help students in subjects such as mechanics and mathematics. High school students in Germany are already using the robot to learn about these subjects, while French high school students are using the robot to understand psychology and informatics.

UAE consumers may also one day soon be able to buy domestic versions of the small robot, with Aldebaran about to unveil a new generation of robots that is expected to take them to areas other than education.

"Right now, we deliver him [the robot] with a full package of programming tools and documentation, and/or education material," says Bastien Parent, a spokesman for Aldebaran. "In the near future, we plan to deliver a general public version ... To reach this goal, we have set up the 'developer programme', a community of private programmers and users that imagine with us what will be the usage of Nao at home."

So far, most robotic functions have been performed by robot arms for purposes such as car assembly lines. At the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, officials hoped to use a Honda robot, Asimo, to help clear contaminated waste. But this was not possible because the robot could not manoeuvre well in rubble and some of its computers were vulnerable to radiation. However, some of the technology used in Asimo is reported to have been used to develop a robotic arm to operate valves at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

But companies such as Honda and Albaran now believe that humanoid robots will have wider uses in the future than was previously imagined outside the pages of science-fiction stories. The reason they give is that the human body is by far the best adapted to mankind's working environment.

"We have designed our entire world for centuries for humanoid users: the human beings," says Mr Parent. "Why not design robots that could fit the already existent environment instead of a multitude of mono-task robots?

"The humanoid shape is one of the most appropriate for interactions, as we, too, are also 'programmed' to get positive feelings fronting this kind of shape."

The latest version of Honda's Asimo robot is reported to be able to distinguish between the voices of three different people spoken at once by using a combination of face recognition and sound analysis.

During a trial, it was able to distinguish that one person wanted coffee, another wanted tea with milk and the third wanted orange juice. The robot's new hands have a tactile sensor and a force sensor in every finger and in each palm. This allows it the dexterity, for instance, to uncap a Thermos flask and pour a drink.

And by pushing better with its toes, Asimo has increased its running speed from 6 kilometres to 9km per hour. Asimo can also run backwards, hop and jump. Like most of the expensive prototype robots currently being showcased, the Asimo is not yet available to the public.

Robots like the Asimo have huge potential in dealing with the public in environments such as restaurants, retailing or reception areas, where their human form makes them far more welcoming than, for instance, a voice machine or standalone robotic arm. The Asimo is seen by industry watchers to have put Honda ahead of its competitors, such as Hitachi, which has developed humanoid robots that lack such sophisticated hands and feet. Hitachi's EMIEW2, for example, is designed to ensure agility and safety in an office environment, but runs on wheels rather than feet. However, it is only 80cm high and has a portable weight of just 14 kilograms to ensure agility and safety in a working office environment. Hitachi hopes that the robot will be used in facilities such as offices and hospitals, where it could be used for security or guiding visitors.

The new generation of Japanese robots is starting to face competition from the US. Boston Dynamics has showcased an adult-sized humanoid robot called Petman, which has the shape of an average person.

The company claims it is "the first anthropomorphic robot that moves dynamically like a real person". But Petman is not designed to interact with people: its purpose is purely for the military.

The robot's initial function will be to test chemical protection clothing rather than engaging in combat. It can balance itself, move freely, walk, crawl and even do suit-stretching exercises such as push-ups. It also simulates human physiology within the protective suit by controlling humidity and perspiration to provide realistic test conditions.

Petman points the way to another use for robots: replacing infantry. Although modern warfare makes extensive use of missiles and other remotely controlled weapons, it still relies heavily on soldiers on the ground. For wealthy western nations, deploying robot troops is politically more accessible than risking losing the lives of human soldiers.

With robots set to perform jobs that include teaching, office cleaning, waiting, domestic service, soldiering and security, the stage is now set for a truly 21st-century technology to make its entrance.

Robots will soon start to eclipse smartphones and tablet computers as the latest "must-have" gadgets. And, once they become commonplace, we may start to wonder how mankind ever managed without them.