Saturday, January 02, 2010

Robots (January 2007)

UPDATE: Learn about miniature robots at the NISE nanoscience website.

With self-guided machines roving across Mars, exploring deep inside the Pyramids, serving as advance scouts for military operations, and vacuuming our floors, you could say the robot revolution has arrived. In the Jan 2007 issue of Scientific American on the “Dawn of the Age of Robots,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates pointed out parallels between the start of the personal computer boom and the robotics industry today, and predicted a future in which the devices will become as common and useful as laptops. Will robots improve life for humankind? Or will the artificial intelligences try to take over the world, as they do in so many books and movies? For now it’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: exploring the world of robots online is highly educational – and buckets of fun.
For all the robot websites out there, it’s hard to find one that sums up all the information to be had (and that keeps its links page up to date). But for junior roboticists, a good place to start is the NASA Robotics Alliance Project. It has news about robots in space and other settings, information on school competitions like FIRST, and even archives of online courses. Another site to try is, a news blog that is updated regularly with links to stories of interest to robot geeks. Robot Magazine has one of the better links pages, which can take you to the sites of companies like WowWee, maker of Robosapien, Roboraptor and that creepy chimp head and iRobot, whose Roomba and Scooba floor cleaning robots are beloved by hackers who reprogram them to dance and sing. (In 2007, the company came out with iRobot Create, a pre-assembled programmable robot base for students and "serious robot developers" to personalize.) And Robot Cafe is a directory of robot sites for the home robot builder.
The history of robots goes back at least to the Victorian era and Boilerplate, a mechanical man, the hit of the 1893 World’s Exposition. While the Czech playwright Karel Capek first used the word “robot” in 1921, the father of modern robots – both fictional and real life – is generally considered to be the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. His story collection I, Robot was the basis for the Will Smith action film (which until recently had a nifty website tie-in that let you “order” your own model in the colors of your choice). But you can still design your own robot on the website of the Museum of Science in Boston. The site of a traveling exhibit which made a stop there a few years back is Robots and Us, with fun activities that show how robots can move, analyze and even show emotion.
ASIMO, the little humanoid corporate ambassador for the Honda Motor Co., has concluded his tour of the US and settled into a new gig at Disneyland, where he demonstrates what the future of home robots may look like. ASIMO’s development over the past 20 years, including most recently released version, which can run at 4 mph, are detailed on the Honda website. But for many of us the first robots we probably ever saw were toys. Before Robosapiens, Aibo, and Furbys became household names, kids had to play with tin or plastic toy robots that didn’t really do anything – but they loved them anyway. The site Jeff’s Robots has a neat gallery of one (former) boy’s collection, robot art from comic books to sculpture, and info on famous robots from TV and movies.
Yes, robots are our friends, but even robotics experts can get paranoid sometimes. Daniel H. Wilson, Popular Mechanics’ online Resident Roboticist, is also author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, a guide to protecting the species from annihilation. (Among the useful tips for spotting a rebellious robot servant: “Run for your reinforced-steel panic room if your servant disobeys you, even if it does so in a very polite manner.”) But it’s important to know whether your robot is really hostile: “Your robo-vacuum may be bumping into your feet in a malevolent attempt to kill you – or just trying to snuggle.” In other words, Bill Gates is probably right ... but it never hurts to be prepared.

UPDATE: There are a lot of robot-related computer programming sites for kids. They include Logo, Robocode, and Guido van Robot.