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Specialists in robotics are striving to produce humanoid robots that feature more human characteristics.

“Sociable robots” are capable of most human processes and interactions

“We want to see if we can build robots that are more than tools. I’d like to push robotics to the point where we are creating machines that cooperate with people as partners. For instance, right now, I’m working with NASA on developing Robonaut, which is envisioned as an astronaut’s assistant.”
—Cynthia Breazeal, Expert in Robotics at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

A necessary sensory aptitude for a sociable robot is to know where people are and what they are doing. Hence, a sociable robot needs to be able to monitor humans in the environment and interpret their activities; such as, gesture-based communication.

The sociable robot must be able to understand aspects about its inanimate environment as well as its anthropoidal contacts and so an important sensory modality for facilitating these kinds of observations is vision. The robot will need a collection of visual abilities, closely tied to the specific kind of information about the interactions that it needs to extract.

Robotics builders are even trying to develop a synthetic skin capable of detecting pressure and location with a tactile sensing system over its entire body, while still retaining the look and feel of soft skin [see example on the left]. They are varying the density of sensors so that the robot will have greater resolution in areas that are frequently in contact with objects or people. A distributed network of tiny processing elements is also being developed to lie underneath the skin to acquire and process the sensory signals.

Irish scientists are also working on a way to make robots more “human” so people will be able to relate to them more naturally. The first prototype, identified as Anthropos, has cameras for eyes, a speaker as a mouth and motors that control how it moves.

So far, Anthropos makes gestures, moves around and seems to understand what is said to it. The project aims to use artificial intelligence to create a robot that is friendly and sociable, so people can “forget” they are talking to a machine.

New “robot” words we've created:

aerobot: A helium-filled balloon fitted with heaters that are powered by solar cells. During the day, solar energy will heat the helium and give it extra buoyancy; at night, the balloon will drop to lower altitudes or even touch the ground. NASA scientists can also view and record the ground from much lower altitudes than is possible with satellites. The word combines the prefix aero-, as in aeronautics, with bot, a common abbreviated form of robot .

anthrobotics: The development of robots resembling humans, the study and development of robots that are intended to behave like or resemble human beings (takes a singular verb). Late 20th century. A blend of anthropo- and robotics.

domobot: A domotic microbot. Domotic means connected to a home automation network. Domobots can be connected to a domotic controller (a computer or similar device) through a cable (USB port) or wirelessly (usually through a WiFi port). They are mostly used for domestic work, such as vacuum cleaning , and transporting objects around the house to wash or iron them, etc.

microbot: A mobile robot with a microcontroller. Due to its limited computing power, microbots are dedicated to solving tasks quickly and accurately that don’t require high processing power and complex algorithms.

microrobot: A microrobot is a miniaturized, sophisticated machine designed to perform a specific task or tasks repeatedly and with precision. Microrobots typically have dimensions ranging from a fraction of a millimeter up to several millimeters. A microrobot, like its larger and smaller cousins, the robot and the nanorobot, can be either autonomous or insect-like. An autonomous microrobot contains its own on-board computer, which controls the machine and allows it to operate independently. The insect scheme is more common for microrobots. In an insect-microrobot arrangement, the machine is one of a fleet of several, or many, identical units that are all controlled by a single, central computer. The term insect comes from the fact that such robots behave like ants in an anthill or bees in a hive.

microbotics: A techno-science term for microbots.

nanorobot: A nanorobot is a specialized nanomachine designed to perform a specific task or tasks repeatedly and with precision. Nanorobots have dimensions on the order of nanometers (a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter).

Nanorobots, like their larger counterparts, can be categorized into two groups, called autonomous robots and insect robots. An autonomous nanorobot contains its own on-board nanocomputer, which controls the machine and allows it to operate independently. An insect nanorobot is one of a fleet of several, or many, identical units that are all controlled by a single, central computer.

Nanorobots are of special interest to researchers in the medical industry. It has been suggested that a fleet of self-replicating insect nanorobots might act as a vaccine against disease. Such machines might even serve as antibodies or antiviral agents in patients with compromised immune systems, or in diseases that do not respond to more conventional measures. The nanorobots would work by seeking out and destroying specific bacteria, fungi, or viruses. Nanorobots have potential applications in the assembly of small-scale, sophisticated systems. They might function at the atomic level to build devices, machines, or circuits one particle at a time.

A major asset of nanorobots is the fact that the individual units require very little energy to operate. Durability is another potential asset; nanorobots might remain operational for years, decades, or centuries. High speed is also a significant consideration. Nanoscale systems can operate much faster than their larger counterparts because displacements are smaller; this allows mechanical and electrical events to occur in less time at a given absolute speed.

robodoc: A robot with a computer-screen head, video-camera eyes, and a speaker for a mouth functioning as a robotic medical surrogate. Dr. Robot’s LCD screen displays the face of the medical provider-specialist operating the robot.

The robots can be operated from anywhere, provided the user has access to a control station with a computer, Internet access, and “mobile robotic” control software from the robot’s manufacturer (InTouch Health).

Most of the patients who have had contact with the four-foot tall “doctor” have reported that they think “interacting with robotic caregivers is far more amusing and interesting than chatting with standard-issue, flesh-and-blood medical personnel.” Some have even stated that “the robodoc was more enjoyable than a standard bedside visit.”

Medical facilities in small towns or rural areas who may lack the resources to maintain a full staff of medical specialists could use the robots to provide remote consultations with experts who could work with patients, medical staff, and family members whenever and wherever needed.

Robots also could stand in for humans when it's not practical or possible to physically send in physicians; such as, in military operations, natural or bioterrorist disasters, at sea, or in other remote locations.

Health-care workers need not fear that they will be replaced by “bots,” no matter how amused patients might be by the prospect. Medical specialists believe that robo-doctors and robo-nurses can supplement care, but cannot replace their human counterparts; at least, not yet!

robonaut: A robot that is an assistant to astronauts.

roboticist: A specialist in robots or robotics.

telerobotics: The area of robotics that is concerned with the control of robots from a distance.


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