Even though robots have already broadly demonstrated their ability to replace humans in the industrial world, where they obediently and meticulously carry out the most menial and repetitive tasks, robotics has yet to unleash hidden potential in the business world. Around the world teams of researchers are attempting to show that once we can get past preconceived notions, machines are very often able to fill in for humans or even replace them. People robots Medical robots Utility robots and beyond

People robots

Asimo 2 is one of the standout successes among humanoid robots. Its ability to move independently, transport objects, and speak leads one to imagine a near future with virtual receptionists, machine aides for the elderly, and robotic nannies. Reality has even caught up to fiction already, as Wakamaru—Mitsubishi's communicating robot—and its various competitors demonstrate.

Would you let a machine care for one of your loved ones? Just the thought turns off most Westerners, but the Japanese think differently. Inhabitants of the archipelago are willing to take a chance on machines assisting humans because of factors like their animist culture and an aging population.

Could a machine do a better job welcoming your potential clients than your warmest receptionist? That possibility is not so inconceivable—just give your robot a nice appearance (see Actroid below), a synthetic voice with friendly inflections, and the ability to respond sensibly when spoken to, and you will have a receptionist that always keeps its cool, never takes a break, and even alerts you instantly when someone arrives.

Robots—from health aides and nannies to receptionists—can be expected to benefit rapidly from the popularization of communicating objects. The fun little Nabaztag rabbit robot by Violet (a French company) is just one example of this much deeper phenomenon. What better than a cybernetic machine to act as go-between for these various devices? Some tasks that have been handled by humans up to now could definitely be assigned to machines in the near future. Once it gains momentum, this trend can expected to extend beyond the home into many realms of human activity. rabbit robot by Violet (a French company) is just one example of this much deeper phenomenon. What better than a cybernetic machine to act as go-between for these various devices? Some tasks that have been handled by humans up to now could definitely be assigned to machines in the near future. Once it gains momentum, this trend can expected to extend beyond the home into many realms of human activity.

Medical robots

Robotics has made a significant impact in medicine for the plain and simple reason that machines can accomplish feats that humans, for all their talents, cannot. Numerous experiments in medical robotics have demonstrated that machines can in some circumstances replace the human hand with diabolic precision and insignificant margins of error.

And we haven’t even talked about humans remotely controlling a mechanical arm to perform a delicate operation, or about the 15-mm-diameter radio-controlled robot—recently developed by the University of Nebraska —that can move by rolling itself and thus perform a biopsy in a patient’s stomach without harming any tissues. Moreover, three French hospitals have recently been equipped with CyberKnife, a robotic radiosurgery system developed by Accuray Incorporated and designed to treat solid tumors. —that can move by rolling itself and thus perform a biopsy in a patient’s stomach without harming any tissues. Moreover, three French hospitals have recently been equipped with CyberKnife, a robotic radiosurgery system developed by Accuray Incorporated and designed to treat solid tumors.

—that can move by rolling itself and thus perform a biopsy in a patient’s stomach without harming any tissues. Moreover, three French hospitals have recently been equipped with CyberKnife, a robotic radiosurgery system developed by Accuray Incorporated and designed to treat solid tumors.

What’s next? Machines that can independently diagnose patients. If you’re not convinced, how about this: Last June, NEC System Technologies revealed a robot prototype that can taste food for the purpose of providing health or nutritional advice. With other such initiatives being regularly developed, robots could eventually replace doctors for a range of diagnoses. Will that mean less human warmth?

Utility robots and beyond

"Catch that Rabbit" is one of nine short stories that make up Isaac Asimov’s classic robot-themed science fiction work, I, Robot. The story chronicles the adventures of DV-5, or Dave, a robot responsible for mining an asteroid. But this half-century-old vision of space conquest is not outdated: humans are developing space robots for all-terrain movement so they can scout the way for humankind.

NASA’s Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are characteristic of this movement. They use their six wheels (except for Spirit, which has a broken right-front wheel) to move independently. Unfortunately, their movements can not yet be tracked with Google Mars.

On Earth, machines sometimes provide valuable services to humans by entering places that people cannot. Remember, for example, that robots were used to search for survivors in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Their tracks and flexible geometry enable them to squeeze into the tightest places and tell rescuers where and how to reach victims.

Robotics researchers are often inspired by the animal world when perfecting their machines’ movement, sometimes creating amazingly shaped machines that can climb obstacles or move on any type of terrain (see the machines developed by Boston Dynamics).

Humanoid robots won’t be outdone. Like robots that can stand up by mimicking the movements of the human body, and Murata Boy whose numerous sensors enable him to keep his balance while riding a bike, they are becoming increasingly adept.

It’s hard to completely cover robotics nowadays because projects in the field are so varied and prolific. In a few areas, machines have already surpassed humans; their rapid development could significantly shake up some sectors of human activity.