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Monday, July 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Someday your robo-maid may watch "I, Robot"
By THERESE POLETTI
At least they are in "I, Robot." When the big-budget thriller hit movie screens earlier this summer, it was hard not to notice the gap between the clunky robots of today and those doing battle with Will Smith's Detective Del Spooner.
Yet the future is arriving, one 'bot at a time. Robots today perform surgery, build cars and explore other planets. They even live in our homes. The Roomba robotic vacuum cleans floors while the RoboMower trims lawns. It's not quite the Jetsons, but it's a start.
The holy grail for robotics researchers is an autonomous robot that walks and understands and responds to human commands.
"Ultimately, that's why we are all here," says scientist Charles Ortiz, pointing to a model of the robot from "Lost in Space" that sits on his conference table at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. Ortiz is program manager of the Artificial Intelligence Center at SRI, a nonprofit organization that operates one of the country's leading robotics research centers.
Such robots may not arrive by 2035. But a visit to SRI offers a glimpse of technologies that could one day make even the stars of "I, Robot" seem so early-21st century.
Forget robots that walk. Think robots that swim, fly or wriggle. SRI is developing artificial muscles to give robots the ability to run, jump and climb like biological creatures.
A robot named Flex
In a windowless SRI lab, a small, spider-like robot named Flex sits on a table. It rests on eight legs powered by hollow rolls of electroactive polymers. When subjected to electrical current, the thin rubberlike material allows the robot to move and bend like a real insect would.
Next to Flex sits Hex, a decade-old six-legged robot with a mass of motors and wiring attached to each limb.
"If a robot is really going to be able to run, jump and throw Will Smith out of a window ... it's not going to ... do that with motors and gears," says Roy Kornbluh, a senior SRI research engineer.
Robots with artificial muscles have the flexibility to move without the need for such calculations. "We want to try and imitate muscles; that's how things move more fluidly and climb," said Kornbluh. "Using artificial muscles you could make a robot that swims."
He presses a button on a console and a butterfly-shaped robot flaps wings made from artificial muscle. Another robot in the lab is shaped like a snake and could be used to repair pipelines and explore confined spaces.
Kornbluh says artificial muscle may serve as an alternative to motors, speakers, sensors, pumps and generators.
In May, SRI obtained $2.5 million in funding from Vanguard Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners and NGEN Partners. SRI created a company called Artificial Muscle to commercialize its patented technology. An additional $5 million will follow upon meeting certain milestones.
One of SRI's first robots will be inducted in the Robot Hall of Fame this fall. In 1966, the robot called Shakey became the first mobile robot to visually interpret its surroundings.
Recently, Shakey's progeny could be found roaming the hallways of SRI's Artificial Intelligence Center, mapping their home with laser scanners and communicating with each other over their onboard wireless networks.
Called Centibots, these small, red robots on wheels were developed by SRI using off-the-shelf computer parts and the Linux operating system. They were developed for a project funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The robots are networked and use small Web cameras to work together to build a map of a room, or any location. They then can search for an object and deploy themselves to guard it and detect intruders. For example, they could be sent into a hazardous area to search for a bomb or an injured person.
"They stitch the information together like a jigsaw puzzle," said SRI's Ortiz, who oversaw the Centibots project.
In a demonstration earlier this year, SRI deployed 47 Centibots in a 24,000-square-foot building at an East Coast military base. Two waves of larger Centibots equipped with laser scanners were sent out to create a map of the building.
When each Centibot met up with another, they would exchange information to construct the map. Those Centibots transmitted the map to smaller Centibots that then searched the building for a hidden pink ball. The robots matched what they saw through their cameras with a visual algorithm of the ball programmed into their software. The robots also had to call for help when their batteries ran low. When such a call went out, another Centibot would travel to its comrade, receive instructions on its duties and take the place of the failing robot.
"Every time we show the Centibots, people bring up 'Minority Report,' " jokes Ortiz, referring to the 2002 science-fiction movie that featured swarms of robotic spiders that would search buildings for criminal suspects.
SRI has completed its government contract and is looking for other funding to continue the Centibot research.
Dan Kara, president of Robotics Trends in Northborough, Mass., sees robotics making the jump from the laboratory to the marketplace. Inspired by successes like the Roomba vacuum, developed by iRobot of Burlington, Mass., other robotics companies are starting up, such as GeckoSystems in Conyers, Ga., and White Box Robotics in Youngwood, Pa.
"It's a whole new industry," Kara said. "It's very similar to the PC industry in 1977." The biggest challenges for robotics researchers still lie in artificial intelligence developing the software to give a robot the ability to imitate the complex human brain.
Active learning the goal
"The robots we have nowadays are really not that adaptable," said Reid Simmons, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, who has created many robots, including a robo-ceptionist named Valerie. "Most robotic systems don't actively learn from their experiences. That would make a big difference if we could crack that nut, but right now everything is programmed in."
Simmons predicts that, like the movie "I, Robot," humans will eventually have personal robots. "By 2035, of course," he joked when asked for a time frame. "Any scientist who makes a prediction that is longer than 10 years is just guessing."
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