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Robots of the Future

There’s much in store for our artificially intelligent friends next year.

Robot racers. First there was the DARPA Grand Challenge, a robotic contest for building a driverless car capable of successfully completing a 132-mile off-road course. In November 2007, DARPA will throw down the gauntlet once again in the form of the Urban Challenge. This contest raises the bar by requiring its autonomous contestants to negotiate a 60-mile course through simulated urban traffic in less than six hours. Bookies’ favorite is likely to be Sebastian Thrun and his team of roboticists from Stanford University, CA, who won the last challenge, in 2005.

In 2005, Stanford Racing Team’s car (shown above) won the DARPA Grand Challenge, a contest in which autonomous vehicles had to navigate the desert. Next year’s contest will involve simulated traffic.

Safety. Safety will likely be high on the agenda for roboticists in 2007. As the number of robots entering our homes, either as service robots or for entertainment purposes, increases, so, too, do the chances that these droids might advertently harm us. “If they are powerful enough to do something useful, then they are powerful enough to be dangerous,” says Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, in the UK. And it’s not just a question of strength. All it takes, Melhuish says, is for one to accidentally spill coffee on someone’s lap, and you have a lawsuit. In April, roboticists from around the world will meet in Rome to discuss such safety issues and begin the process of finding solutions before it’s too late.

Pulling power. Artificial muscles have long been discussed as an alternative to the puny electric motors and bulky pneumatic pistons that currently power robots. Research into using electroactive polymers as robo-muscles has been promising, but so far they have failed to generate sufficient force. The goal is to develop limbs that are capable of lifting twice the robots’ weight, says Henrik Christensen, a professor of robotics at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta. But now researchers at the Nanotech Institute at the University of Texas, Dallas, have found a way to make carbon nanotubes into artificial muscles by spinning these extremely strong and lightweight molecules into “yarn.” There is still a ways to go to make them practical, but it’s likely that the coming year will see a flurry of activity in this area.

Domestics. If the latest figures are to be believed, 2007 will be the year of the robotic revolution. According to the latest Robotics Survey, published in October by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, domestic robots now outstrip their industrial cousins. In 2005, the number of domestic droids exceeded the one million milestone, a figure that is now expected to rise into the several millions over the next few years. Christensen believes that next year South Korea will likely come out with the first truly multifunctional home robot. The South Korean government is committed to becoming a leader in robotics and has announced a plan to have a robot in every home by 2013.

Microsoft. It may not be the first time anyone has released a software developers’ kit for general-purpose robots, but it’s the first kit from Microsoft. The company has made it clear that it has every intention of doing for the robotics industry what it did with PCs, and the time appears to be now. With the cost of processing, storage, cameras, and other hardware relatively low and the demand for robotics increasing, the Japanese Robotics Association predicts that by 2025 the market will be worth a whopping $50 billion a year. It’s no wonder, then, that Microsoft wants to get in on the act. By providing a generic platform for writing robotics software, Microsoft hopes to provide a foundation for the kind of innovation needed to make robots truly useful around the home. And if Microsoft’s track record is anything to go by, the company will begin mass marketing this message in the coming year.

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