In partnership with NRG
There’s nothing to fear from the robot revolution. In fact, life’s about to get a whole lot easier thanks to these do-good droids
You must have read the headlines: robots are coming at us in a big, big way. Yup, in the next, um, 20 years, they’re going to rise up, take our board-games, our burger-flipping jobs and, well, kill us all. Really? No, not really. Automatons, actually, are going to do us a whole lot of good. For one thing, robotics is a cool way to get young people into careers in science, tech, engineering and maths (STEM). Or so says FIRST – an ace non-profit that’s been inspiring would-be tech-tinkerers to go after careers in STEM since 1989.
Every year, they run a pretty awesome annual FIRST Robotics Competition – basically, teams of high-school students go head-to-head in a giant robot war with bots they’ve designed and programmed themselves. The project is supported by the power company NRG (one of Collectively’s partners) who help out with funding and providing employees who volunteer to mentor the students throughout. And after six weeks of prep, all the teams meet up and duke it out.
This year, the challenge was to create bots that could kind of play a medieval type of basketball (that’s a difficult one to do justice to in words… Please, just watch the video). The final happened last week and, with 20,000 people in the crowd, it was the biggest robot battle in history (so far). The winning alliance came from five states across the US. Still, it’s not just about the win. It’s about inspiring the next gen of science-smart engineers to go pro in tech that can build bots like these that can recycle, save lives, grow food. And then kill us all.
1. Liam – Apple’s awesome, if limited, recycling super-bot
Tim Cook reckons that producing one billion iPhones worldwide comes with a “significant responsibility”. And, yep, he’s probably right on that one. The answer? Liam. Apple’s new, 29-pronged, pro-planet super-bot that can de-assemble iScrap – in other words, old iPhones, iMacs – and extract the good, re-usable bits for recycling (like, say, lithium, which can be rebooted to work in good stuff like solar panels).
According to Apple, Liam can dismantle one iPhone every 11 seconds. A lot of iPhones, then. The idea is to put a dent in the 40 million tons of e-waste the UN reckons the world produces each year. But there’s a catch: Liam only works on the iPhone 6S and, even at that speed, it can only recycle a fraction of iPhones Apple produces. Still, it’s a start, right? As Wired recently said: “that a manufacture is planning for end-of-life at all is a game changer”. Agreed.
2. Bob – robo-empathy humanoid that could be the end of loneliness
Remember Bob? Right, of course you do: he’s the first ever VR-controlled humanoid to give a TED talk in the UK last year. And, yes, he smashed it (we know because, ahem, we were there). Created by Bristol Robotics Laboratory, co-developer Paul Bremner explained that Bob’s human-gesture capabilities are what’s going to make digital, flat-screen communication a whole lot more real.
So, yes, now, you can totally own that board meeting without actually being there. Kind of. Which is, um, all great, of course. But Bremner reckons Rob has a broader social purpose: “The ultimate goal? To tackle social isolation”. An avatar that can show human sensitivities, it’s hoped, could be massive in helping people with social challenges. This, amazingly, is already happening in the US, where two robot bros – Zeno and Milo – are being used to diagnose kids with autism.
3. Nadine – the scary-real service-bot that remembers your name
OK, it’s a thing: robots have human-y names. Like, Ms Nadine here – a properly creep-out realistic robot-receptionist from Singapore made by Nanyang Technological University. Named after its creator, professor Nadia Thalmann, this bot is powered by software similar to Apple’s Siri. So, kind of like a personal assistant or companion that definitely knows when you’re swearing. Always fully aware, Nadine has a spectrum of moods and can strike up conversation with people she’s already met based on their previous meets.
Yup, scary is right. Still, kind of like Bob, Thalmann is shooting for social good: “As countries worldwide face challenges of an ageing population, social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce, become personal companions for the elderly, and even serve as a platform for healthcare services in future.”
4. Nanorobot – cancer-crushing micro-droids that go to war in your bod
Imagine a teeny-weeny little micro solider-droid you could send into your body to kill the bad stuff in there and feel amazing again. Well, that’s real and happening. Seriously. Professor Ido Bachelet of Bar-Ilan University in Israel is now testing nano-bots that can be injected into your bod to selectively kill cancers cells. Apparently, they look a bit like clam shells and work like small carrier cells for toxic cancer drugs – they’re programmed to find them and, when they do, open fire – literally.
No kidding. Human trials only started last year. But Bachelet reckons that in animal trials he found he could successfully remove cancer cells in just over a month. And he’s not the only one developing millimetre-sized micro-medicins sans frontieres: a team of scientists at Drexel University have just started trailing nano-bots that can drill, yes, drill, through blocked arteries. Should be ready by 2019, they say. Go tech.
5. Spread – the world’s first robot-run farm in Japan
So, with a huge bump in population on the way, the UN reckons that by 2050 the world is going to need to produce a whole lot more food. That’s going to be tough for everyone but doubly so for countries with shrinking, ageing populations like Japan. The answer? Spread – a completely robot-run super-farm based in Kyoto where pretty much everything – watering, trimming, harvesting – will be fully automated by agri-bots that can also monitor stuff like carbon dioxide levels, lighting and heat to optimise growth.
According to the company, the farm will be able to produce something like 51,000 lettuce heads a day at full clip using super-efficient LED lights and 98 per cent recycled water. But the point is not to replace humans with humanoids, say Spread. It’s all about syncing man and machine and rebooting agriculture as a cool, tech-smart industry to get a new generation of people interested in farming. Which is pretty damn important if 9.2 billion people are going to get anything to eat in 2050. Goes live in 2017.
6. Tug – the R2D2-like drug dispensing doctor-bot that’s going to save loads of lives
Super cute, right? This little medical automaton is currently at work in UCSF Medical Centre in San Francisco. Yes, they’re already fully operational – and could be hitting a hospital near you. Right now, there are two kinds of Tug: one that does super-menial stuff like pick up trash, deliver food or clean linen, and one that ferries (password-secured) drugs to doctors all over the hospital. Both can talk (in Australian, surfer-bro accents because, well, why not?) and both are totally free rolling – they can even summon elevators and level up and down without human help (via wi-fi).
And get this: each Tug can deliver 1,000 meals and usually travels around 12 miles per day. But, wait, aren’t they just killing work hours for humans? Well, yeah, kind of. But the point, says the makers, is to give healthcare pros more time to spend with patients are cut costs in order to reduce the price of healthcare in the US. And, then there’s, well, the cuteness – can’t forget the cuteness.
7. OceanOne – a deep dive into haptic robotics
In one of the most important leaps forward in mermaid technology since Darryl Hannah, artificial intelligence scientists at Stanford have been trialling OceanOne, a remote-controlled humanoid diver who can sink to new depths in undersea exploration. She moves through the deep using eight thrusters while her arms are controlled with impressive precision from the comfort of a ship on the surface. Moving in sync with her pilot’s body, OceanOne is able to transfer sensory information from the objects she comes into contact with, so the controller feels what she ‘feels’ (jargon alert: this sort of sensory symbiosis is known as haptic technology).
Removing the limitations of human diving – exhaustion, that whole oxygen-requirement thing – opens up endless possibilities for exploring and understanding our oceans deeper and better than ever before. So far she’s been tested in salvage operations on the seabed. Watch OceanOne hunt for sunken archaeological treasure in this video:
Isn’t she amazing? We’re not sure she’s female, by the way – we’re just a little taken by the whole mermaid thing. And maybe, possibly, a tiny bit in love.